While many of our heroes have lost their gloss, Abraham Lincoln still shines brightly for many Americans because there is so much to learn from his life.
For example, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln was defeated in his race for the United States Senate by Stephen Douglas, making it Lincoln’s third electoral defeat in a row. As Lincoln emerged from the telegraph office into the rain-soaked street in Springfield, Illinois he lost his balance when his foot slipped on the slick boardwalk. Catching himself before he tumbled into the mud Lincoln muttered to under his breath, “A slip, but not a fall.”
He then smiled brightly.
Recognizing the symbolic importance for his political life of catching himself before he fell, Lincoln understood that his political career was not over despite his string of defeats. He started for home reenergized. In two years he was elected President of the United States.
“I claim not to have controlled event,” Lincoln candidly wrote in 1864, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Lincoln’s critics (both contemporary and posthumous) have often pointed to this confession as a sign that while Lincoln successfully rode the whirlwind of Civil War, he was not the builder of the nation that others have claimed- a kind of second founding father after Washington.
But it was this essentially negative trait (negative in the sense that it was passive and did not require action) that allowed Lincoln to remake US society on the basis of the words of the Declaration of Independence that declared “all men are created equal,” to include African Americans. He was able to accomplish this revolutionary object through passive management of the Civil War without turning it in to a “remorseless revolutionary struggle,” which might have irreparably divided the nation during Reconstruction.
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