Since 1865, American presidents have looked to Abraham Lincoln for inspiration and for an example to follow. It’s a noble pursuit, and they should keep trying, secure in the knowledge that they will, in the end, fall short.
No president has combined intellect, caginess and temperament with the mortal challenges that Lincoln faced as leader of a nation tearing apart. None should want it.
The closest is Franklin D. Roosevelt, a great president who faced down two threats to the nation’s survival, neither one as immediately lethal as the Civil War. That was a cataclysm that we, the heirs of Lincoln, cannot hope to comprehend. And if today’s Americans cannot fathom the enormity of the crisis of 1861-65, we also cannot imagine the burden that weighed on Lincoln’s shoulders. He was, in that regard, the nation’s greatest president, facing threats greater even than George Washington did as president – and surmounting them. And 150 years ago last Wednesday, he paid a heavy price for it.
It was on Good Friday in 1865 that Lincoln was shot, a date whose significance was not lost on the people of that day, nor on commentators since. “The President Who Died for Us” was the headline on an op-ed piece in the New York Times on April 14, 2006, a year when the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination also fell on Good Friday.
Even shorn of its religious connotation, the headline would remain accurate. Lincoln was shot because he refused to let perish the country he understood as the last best hope of Earth.
What would have happened had he failed, or had a different president, of lesser skill and commitment, been elected in 1860? How much longer would slavery have persisted? A mere 80 years later – not even a blink of the historical eye – how would the wounds of that time have affected Roosevelt’s ability to confront Naziism? Without U.S. involvement, Britain would surely have fallen, leaving all of Europe under Hitler’s boot. And many more than 6 million Jews would have been exterminated.
What would have happened had Lincoln lived? How might Reconstruction have proceeded differently? How different would be our assessment of Lincoln, himself? No longer martyred, would he still hold the same revered place in the hearts of Americans, 15 decades later? Would we have a Lincoln Memorial? A Lincoln penny? Who would be on the $5 bill?
Comparisons can be interesting, even if unfair. FDR was every bit as calculating as Lincoln, and if he did not have his predecessor’s intellect, he did have, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, a “first-class temperament.” And he, too, would give his all to the country. Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, both beloved Republican presidents of the 20th century, never faced the tests in office that Lincoln did.
The world had changed since Lincoln’s presidency, too. Even through the administrations of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the country and the news media didn’t fret much over the human frailties of the chief executive. Would Lincoln’s dark moods, or his relationship with his troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, have altered our view of him?
Reports from those who knew him say that Lincoln had premonitions of his death only days before John Wilkes Booth killed him. Some doubt those stories, but it doesn’t really matter. There had been other attempts to assassinate him and he was hated by whites throughout the South.
He knew his life was at risk, but that knowledge didn’t influence his commitment to preserving the union and, eventually, to ending slavery. He was prepared to give, and ultimately did give, what only 17 months earlier he presciently described as “the last full measure of devotion.”
He was only a man, and we idolize him in ways that may not always be useful to governance or respectful of his humanity. But it happens for a reason.