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we have seen a complex, richly human Lincoln, a self-made manwho was witty and tolerant, proud of his achievements, substantiallywealthy, morbidly fascinated with madness, obsessed with death,troubled with recurring bouts of melancholy, and gifted with majortalent for literary expression. This is a remarkably different Lincolnfrom the rumpled, simple, joke-cracking commoner of mythology,or the villainous bigot of the countermyths. But there are other dif-ferences between the historical and mythical Lincoln that are evenmore profound, particularly in the combustible matter of slaveryand Negro rights, the burning political issue of Lincoln’s day.54 / ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Part ThreeADVOCATEOF THE DREAMO my America! my new-found land.JOHNDONNE
1: THEBEACONLIGHT OFLIBERTYIn presidential polls taken by LifeMagazine in 1948, the New YorkTimes Magazinein 1962, and the Chicago Tribune Magazinein 1982,historians and political scholars ranked Lincoln as the best chief ex-ecutive in American history. They were not trying to mythologizethe man, for they realized that errors, vacillations, and human flawsmarred his record. Their rankings indicate, however, that the iconof mythology did rise out of a powerful historical figure, a man wholearned from his mistakes and made a difference. Indeed, Lincolnled the lists because he had a moral vision of where his country mustgo to preserve and enlarge the rights of all her people. He led thelists because he had an acute sense of history—an ability to identifyhimself with a historical turning point in his time and to articulatethe promise that held for the liberation of oppressed humanity theworld over. He led the lists because he perceived the truth of his ageand embodied it in his words and deeds. He led the lists because,in his interaction with the spirit and events of his day, he mademomentous moraldecisions that affected the course of humankind.It cannot be stressed enough how much Lincoln responded to thespirit of his age. From the 1820s to the 1840s, while Lincoln wasgrowing to manhood and learning the art and technique of politics,the Western world seethed with revolutionary ferment. In the 1820s,revolutions broke out not only in Poland, Turkey, Greece, Italy,Spain, and France, but blazed across Spain’s ramshackle SouthAmerican empire as well, resulting in new republics57
whose capitals rang with the rhetoric of freedom and independence.The Republic of Mexico even produced laws and promulgationsthat abolished slavery throughout the nation, including Mexico’ssubprovince of Texas. In that same decade, insurrection panicsrocked the Deep South, especially the South Carolina tidewater, asAmerica’s disinherited Africans reflected the revolutionary turbu-lence sweeping the New World. In 1831, in an effort to liberate hispeople, a visionary slave preacher named Nat Turner incited themost violent slave rebellion in American history, a revolt that shookthe South to its foundations and cleared the way for the GreatSouthern Reaction against the human-rights upheavals of the time.