September 29, 2005

My Lincoln Log

This week's intellectual history topic was a bit . . . well, narrow. At least, it was narrow compared to our other topics. We didn't discuss a period, or a group, or a body of literature . . . We discussed Abraham Lincoln. One guy, one lifetime. So much has been written and said about Lincoln . . . almost too much. In fact, our reading this week included a collection of bizarre titles covering every possible facet of his life (and some I would have considered impossible). My personal favorite of these titles was Abraham Lincoln The Friend of Man His Life Was Another Drop in That Vat Where Human Lives, Like Grapes in God's Vintages, Yield the Wine That Strengthens the Spirit of Truth and Justice in the World. But that still doesn't give me anything to write about.

Who was this guy? I'm not asking this question in the same sense as the title of our reading for the week ("Who Is This Fellow? He Is Smarter Than He Looks"). That question indicates that even people in Lincoln's own day wondered who he was and how he had come to exist. I ask the question because I think we still don't know . . . Surely we know less now than we did then, and are less certain to find out.

I wondered in class what it was that made Lincoln unique, and I just double-checked with a list of presidents to try and confirm what we came up with. Lincoln was the first president to rise from truly humble beginnings directly into a position of power (no, Andrew Jackson doesn't count). Looking down the list of the presidents, Lincoln is one of a very scant handful of "log cabin" presidents, none of whom really distinguished themselves quite like he did. In addition, Lincoln was an intellectual, something we wouldn't normally link to humble origins. He is one of a very scant handful of intellectual presidents (not counting the founding fathers, clearly a special group) . . . and none of the others really had "humble beginnings."

But is it really this quality of being, as we discussed in class, a "self-made intellectual" that makes Lincoln special? Or do we just notice this all the more because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his presidency? In other words, is his success due to his notable qualities, or do we only notice that he had notable qualities because he employed them successfully at a unique time in American history? Might we have presidents who were just as great as Lincoln, but who don't get his "press" because they didn't pull us through a crisis . . . because their admirable qualities weren't given a chance to shine? Did Lincoln's excellent qualities make his success and fame inevitable?

If there's one thing I hate, it's having an entire paragraph of only questions and no real answers for them, but those are the things I wonder about. I can't really give a solid response to any of them. As I said the other night, I don't think it detracts at all from Lincoln's greatness to say that his fame and success are not at all surprising. Lincoln described himself in early life as a "strange, penniless, friendless, uneducated boy working on a flatboat for ten dollars a month." But the fact remains that, no matter how humble his beginnings may have been or what he may have had working against him, Lincoln was a white male born in the right country at the right time in possession of all the qualities he would need to achieve what he achieved. His position was no accident. His success was no mistake. Whoever Abraham Lincoln may or may not have been, he was certainly not a historical fluke.

Posted by Jared at September 29, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack