The year was 1841 and a future leader struggled with a dark depression. In words eerily prophetic he told a friend, “I would just as soon die now, but I have not yet done anything to make any human being remember that I have lived.”
Almost 150 years after his death, and as the 200th anniversary of his birth approaches, the world is still fascinated with the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the man who guided the country through its bloodiest internal conflict, in order, ultimately, to save it.
Brilliant, melancholy, tormented, eloquent, tragic, empathetic, ambitious, complex … the list of words to describe the nation’s 16th president is as varied as it is vast.
On Monday (Feb. 9), a team of experts assembled at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (HKS) to examine the history and profound impact of the tall, awkward, self-taught man from rural Kentucky who is credited with bringing about an end to slavery and saving the nation’s cherished founding principle of democratic rule. The event was sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and the HKS Institute of Politics’ John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.
“Every generation since 1865 has fashioned an Abraham Lincoln to suit its own needs,” said the event’s moderator, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor and director of the Du Bois Institute. Gates, who edited the recently published “Lincoln on Race & Slavery” and hosts the PBS documentary “Looking for Lincoln,” noted that the 16th president’s complexity makes him perhaps “destined to be always Abraham Lincoln, the unknown.”
Still, in an effort to explore the man and myth, Gates turned with a series of questions to the panel, who included Harvard President and Lincoln Professor of History Drew Faust; Yale Professor David Blight; author and journalist Adam Gopnik; Gettysburg College Professor Allen C. Guelzo; playwright Tony Kushner; and John Stauffer, Harvard’s chair of the doctoral program, the History of American Civilization, and professor of English and African and African American Studies.
Faust — whose most recent book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” examines the culture engendered by the unprecedented fatalities of the conflict — addressed how Lincoln coped with the knowledge that the responsibility for such carnage fell immediately to him.
“I think Lincoln was depressed by what he had to do, that he found it very difficult, that he took responsibility for his decisions in a way that made him understand the cost of those decisions,” said Faust, noting that Lincoln found comfort in his visits to wounded troops and that the loss of his young son William to illness gave him an added perspective to the death that surrounded him.
Today, Lincoln biographers, other historians, and simple admirers agree his greatness is readily accessible in his speeches and writings. It was his ability to make critical, complicated concepts into simple yet eloquent points, in essence redefining the rhetoric of the times, that made his work so compelling, observed Gopnik, author of the recently published “Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.”
With the Gettysburg Address, said Gopnik, Lincoln crafted an intricate case for freedom and then defined it again succinctly in the speech’s final line: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
“He has an extraordinary gift in speechmaking for making a very complicated and nuanced argument, a legalistic argument very often, and then smashing it home in terms of a simple statement.”
Additionally, noted Gopnik, Lincoln’s familiarity with other great texts shaped his writing in a crucial way. His feeling for the rhythm of the language, he said, was directly borrowed from the cadences of the Bible and the Bard.
“He had good models — he had the Bible and he had Shakespeare. It’s hard to beat those.”
Lincoln’s role in ending slavery is still considered by many the most important aspect of his legacy. The panel examined the issue, admitting that while he may not have been single-handedly responsible for its demise, his vital role was undeniable.
“Did Lincoln free the slaves?” Gates asked Stauffer. “No, absolutely not,” came a quick reply from Stauffer, author of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” who was quick to explain his perspective in the context of a speech of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
“[Douglass] concluded by saying it’s absurd to think that one man, one individual could free four million slaves … that the emancipation involves a whole complex of factors,” including the slaves who freed themselves, the influence of the military, and the government’s involvement.
Still, Stauffer added, “Douglass acknowledged that Lincoln was a link in this chain in emancipation.”
Kushner, who is working on a screenplay about Lincoln, offered another perspective.
“The case can be made that Lincoln saw his only constitutionally mandated obligation or duty as the preservation of the union, that he was not mandated as the president of the United States to abolish slavery. But I think that the synthesis that he made fairly early on between democracy and self-government and the antithesis of self-government and slavery guided him all the way through, [making him] an absolutely essential figure.”
What would Lincoln’s legacy have been had he lived and presided over Reconstruction, Gates as well as members of the audience wondered? Faust noted that Lincoln’s great capacity for learning would have been his guiding force.
“He was a learner. He always was changing. He was always learning: He was learning how to be a commander in chief; he was learning about military strategy; he was learning about race,” she said, adding, “He was very adaptable and analytical and changed according to his circumstances.”