It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down . . . .
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:-as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
"Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
(In Springfield, Illinois)"
National heroes are national touchstones. Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington, Abraham Lincoln. They are more than history; they have entered into myth. They have come to figure in our rituals, rhetoric, folklore, song, literature, even our dreams. And how each generation depicts a hero may say more about us than about him.
What an unprepossessing figure he must have been when he first appeared upon the national stage, this elongated stick figure with his high-pitched voice, speaking in the accents of his native Kentucky with a vocabulary drawn from Shakespeare, the King James Bible and his country people.
Just when he was most needed by a nation that was still far from knowing it was one nation, this circuit lawyer, this half-comic, half-tragic apparition materialized out of what was then the American West. This prairie thinker, dreamer and schemer, this rustic storyteller, would turn out to be both the simplest and most sophisticated of American political philosophers.
At what point did this tall, lanky, some would say grotesque, figure first impinge on the national consciousness? In 1858 he was just a worn-out old Whig, a one-term congressman whose opposition to the Slave Power and therefore the Mexican War was supposed to have ended his political career. That was the year he became a national figure by debating the great Stephen A. Douglas in a race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, which he would win in all but the technical sense.
The singular truth Mr. Lincoln asserted that pivotal year was that this government could not survive half-slave, half-free - that it was bound to become all one thing or all the other. All men are created equal, and all the excuses for moral neutrality, all the empty hopes that somehow we might forever avoid facing that truth, would prove in vain - as Mr. Lincoln foresaw. And he would not let his truth go. To quote a line from "John Brown's Body," the man was Hell on a cold scent. He might maneuver, and he did, in the great struggle of his time. But he would not give up.