|Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s untimely death at the hands of an assassin. “Now he belongs to the ages”, as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered, and indeed quite a Lincoln legacy has arisen. He is routinely cited as one the most influential as well as one of the most beloved of our Presidents; there are countless towns, streets, schools, companies, products, etc. named after him; he is quoted – and sometimes misquoted – by politicians, preachers, and the like; his likeness appears on both a coin and a bill; and there are memorials to him all over the country (well, at least in the North). Over the years, Abraham Lincoln has been remembered for many things:
But what did Lincoln himself most wish for in regard to his legacy? He was just 23 years old and had been a resident of the town of New Salem for only about six months when he decided to run for the Illinois State Legislature. In order to introduce himself to the voters, he prepared a handbill which outlined his political positions, concluding with a statement which included these words:
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed…”
[The young Lincoln would not win that election, although he would receive 92% of the votes cast in his own town. Two years later, he would try again and would win, going on to serve four consecutive terms.]
There is often a great divide between ambition and legacy. My previous blog post quoted Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ prophecy that one day the entire “civilized and enlightened world” would acknowledge that the South had been right, that enslavement of the African race was not an evil, but a good, ordained by God Himself. Thankfully that ambition did not become the legacy!
This might also have been Lincoln’s fate if he had died earlier in his Presidency, or if the Civil War had not turned out as it did. Had this been the case, today Lincoln might very well be regarded as one of our worst Presidents ever: unqualified and unprepared for the great task he faced, a weak leader, and a traitor to the Constitution. As it was, however, we see that Lincoln’s stated ambition was overwhelmingly gratified, at least after his death. His ambition has been fully realized in his legacy.
Throughout Lincoln’s adult life, he repeated and restated this ambition to prove himself worthy of the esteem and respect of his contemporaries. While suffering a severe case of depression at age 32, for example – his political career was faltering, he had broken off his engagement with Mary Todd, and his best friend Joshua Speed had moved away –, Lincoln wrote to Speed saying that he was more than willing to die, except that he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived” and that “to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for”.
It would be another 22 years before Lincoln could feel absolutely certain that he had truly done something on behalf of his fellow man which would cause people to remember him. That day would come on January 1, 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Some had doubted that Lincoln would follow through on his pledge to sign such a controversial measure, and so when he twice picked up the pen to sign it, and then set it down again, the three men with him began to wonder.
But then the President explained that because he had been shaking hands for several hours at the annual White House New Year’s Day reception, his right arm was almost paralyzed. “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated’.” Therefore he massaged his hands together until he felt sure that he could sign his name with confidence to this document which he called “the central act of my administration”.
Of course, Lincoln also recognized that since the Emancipation Proclamation was technically a war measure, others might come along after him, after the Civil War was over, and attempt to overturn it. This is why he put such great effort into getting the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed, outlawing slavery once and for all from the entire land.
Young Abe Lincoln’s expression of his ambition – “I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men…” – no doubt reflects a universal human longing to be esteemed, valued, respected, etc. by others. But as Lincoln already knew at such a young age, this wouldn’t come to him by entitlement or chance; he must endeavor to make himself into a person deserving of such feelings: “…by rendering myself worthy of their esteem”. Today, we live in a world where respect and value are often demanded, as if they were rights. Perhaps we would be better off if instead we followed Abraham Lincoln’s example and strove to make ourselves truly deserving of them?
April 15, 2015