"Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." ––Abraham Lincoln
The 149th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln provides an appropriate opportunity to appreciate the character of the man beyond the customary veneration afforded by his memorials in statuary, currency and the names of thousands of streets and commercial institutions. He was, in his own words, “the real thing.”
This was a man of humble origins whose determination and perseverance led him to the highest office in the land. At no point in his life did he permit obstacles or challenges to sidetrack his sense of duty to his country or his drive to realize his great vision for it.
This is the man who, as president, faced the severest internal crisis in our nation’s history, while simultaneously juggling external diplomatic relations to avoid foreign interference in our civil war. In both efforts he triumphed. His fierce belief that ultimate sovereignty cannot be inherent in both the federal and state governments—never once waivering from the idea that federal authority supersedes state authority—continues to guide legislation and constitutional interpretation.
This is the man foresighted and shrewd enough to tackle the thorny issue of slavery not head-on, but obliquely, understanding from the outset the existential threat it posed to the Union. His legacy, burnished by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, arose from a fundamental comprehension that it was “a great moral wrong.”
This is the man who brilliantly and ultimately successfully managed (some of his generals would have said in today’s parlance “micromanaged”) the strategy and execution of a mammoth war machine dedicated to the preservation of the union. As commander in chief he provided a brilliant blend of encouragement, compassion and practicality that outlasted political quibbling and intransigence.
This is the man who nevertheless found time to be a devoted father and husband, despite the debilitating grief afforded by the death of his young son and the endless challenges to his patience by his erratic, spendthrift wife. This same compassion extended to his pardoning of condemned military men as well as to the vanquished South, of whom he entreated his cabinet and generals, “Let ‘em up easy.”