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Lincoln the greatest U.S. president

Gene Rigelon (Buy photo)

By Gene Rigelon

Steven Spielberg's recently released movie "Lincoln" is a revealing drama that focuses on Lincoln's final months in office. It is an authentic portrait of this complex individual we thought we knew. Lincoln pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the nation and end slavery. Putting idealism aside, he personally cajoled reluctant congressmen to vote for the 13th Amendment. When two of them held out for more lucrative rewards, they got them, prompting Thaddeus Stevens to remark, "The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America."

There have been more books written about Lincoln than any other human being, with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth and Shakespeare. They range from depicting Lincoln as the second Christ to a power hungry dictator and white supremacist. The fact of the matter is that he was neither saint nor sinner. He was a fallible human being like the rest of us, losing his temper at times and occasionally being vindictive. He was most importantly an astute politician who could wheel and deal with the best of them, and that should be taken into account when analyzing his speeches.

It is true that Lincoln, as did 99 percent of white America at that time, did not think blacks to be his social or intellectual equal, as noted by his many detractors, but he considered them to be equal to him under the law as he so eloquently stated in the sixth debate with Steven Douglas in Quincy, Ill. "...There is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in Declaration of Independence - the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color - perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; but in the right to eat the bread without leave of anybody else which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every other man."

It was Lincoln who changed the Declaration from Jefferson's original meaning, that it applied to only male property owners, to the its true meaning, that it applies to all human beings. That was his bible. It was that firm belief that guided him in leading our nation through its most trying period.

Frederick Douglas, on his meeting with Lincoln in 1863 for the first time, was surprised to find Lincoln "the first great man that I talked with in the United States who in no single instance reminded me of the difference of color ." Douglas said he thought that was "because of the similarity with which I fought my way up, we both starting at the bottom of the ladder." That made Lincoln, in Douglas's mind, "emphatically the black man's president."

W.E.B. Dubois: "I love him (Lincoln) not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln. At the crises he was big enough to be inconsistent, merciful; peace loving; a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man - a big inconsistent, brave man."

It is also true that Lincoln put the preservation of the Union above emancipation. He was obsessed with saving the union because he firmly believed that it was "the last best hope of mankind." In winning the war, he not only preserved liberal democracy for this country but for the rest of the world. If the Confederacy had won and gone its separate way, as most monarchists and dictators at that time hoped, it would have been a severe setback for democracy for an indefinite period of time. Slavery would have been perpetuated and would have lasted into the 20th century, according to many historians.

This from Allen Guelza's excellent book "Lincoln - Redeemer President" - "Lincoln's greatest political accomplishment was not that he centralized a previously weak government, but that he made the idea of the nation - a single people, unified rationally, not around a Rousseauian General Will but around certain propositions that transcended ethnicity, religious denominationalism, and gender - into the central image of the republic." He was, in my opinion, the greatest president that this country ever had or will possibly ever have.

Gene Rigelon of Front Royal is coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, sash.wash.org. Email him at info@nvdaily.com


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