We have seen a complex richly human lincoln a self

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we have seen a complex, richly human Lincoln, a self-made man who was witty and tolerant, proud of his achievements, substantially wealthy, morbidly fascinated with madness, obsessed with death, troubled with recurring bouts of melancholy, and gifted with major talent for literary expression. This is a remarkably different Lincoln from 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 even more profound, particularly in the combustible matter of slavery and Negro rights, the burning political issue of Lincoln’s day. 54 / ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Part Three ADVOCATE OF THE DREAM O my America! my new-found land. J OHN D ONNE
1: T HE B EACON L IGHT OF L IBERTY In presidential polls taken by Life Magazine in 1948, the New York Times Magazine in 1962, and the Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1982, historians and political scholars ranked Lincoln as the best chief ex- ecutive in American history. They were not trying to mythologize the man, for they realized that errors, vacillations, and human flaws marred his record. Their rankings indicate, however, that the icon of mythology did rise out of a powerful historical figure, a man who learned from his mistakes and made a difference. Indeed, Lincoln led the lists because he had a moral vision of where his country must go to preserve and enlarge the rights of all her people. He led the lists because he had an acute sense of history—an ability to identify himself with a historical turning point in his time and to articulate the promise that held for the liberation of oppressed humanity the world over. He led the lists because he perceived the truth of his age and embodied it in his words and deeds. He led the lists because, in his interaction with the spirit and events of his day, he made momentous moral decisions that affected the course of humankind. It cannot be stressed enough how much Lincoln responded to the spirit of his age. From the 1820s to the 1840s, while Lincoln was growing 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 South American empire as well, resulting in new republics 57
whose capitals rang with the rhetoric of freedom and independence. The Republic of Mexico even produced laws and promulgations that abolished slavery throughout the nation, including Mexico’s subprovince of Texas. In that same decade, insurrection panics rocked the Deep South, especially the South Carolina tidewater, as America’s disinherited Africans reflected the revolutionary turbu- lence sweeping the New World. In 1831, in an effort to liberate his people, a visionary slave preacher named Nat Turner incited the most violent slave rebellion in American history, a revolt that shook the South to its foundations and cleared the way for the Great Southern Reaction against the human-rights upheavals of the time.

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