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Looking at Lincoln

A Conversation with Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson

Whenever the United States goes about choosing its next president, as it is in 2008, the country tends to look back to its past leaders. And no matter your political leanings, most every American believes that Lincoln was one of the country's greatest presidents. Knox Magazine sat down with the College's resident Lincoln experts, Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson, co-directors of the Lincoln Studies Center, to find out why Lincoln continues to inspire so many Americans.

Knox Magazine: Why is Lincoln commonly regarded as one of the greatest American presidents?

Rodney O. Davis: Abraham Lincoln's vision of America was truly far-reaching -- a republican example for all humanity, wherein fundamental human rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, could be ultimately guaranteed. Not only did he articulate this vision with great clarity and eloquence, he went far to implement it during his presidency. He considered the salvation of the American Union a matter of urgent necessity for all humankind, not just Americans, and he strove implacably to insure the success of that goal when the union was in jeopardy. And convinced of the total incongruity of human slavery in a nation dedicated to human rights, he moved, when the time was right, to put an end to it. For these major accomplishments Abraham Lincoln is best remembered, as he presided over the greatest crisis in American history. In my view, he is the greatest American president.

Douglas L. Wilson: I agree with this eloquent historical assessment and would only add a word about one important reason Lincoln is commonly regarded as a great president by ordinary Americans. Here it seems clear that there is an enduring attraction for the man and his life story -- a poor, uneducated, country boy, whose belief in himself, and whose hard work and determination, prepare him to play a crucial role in the great crisis that threatens to destroy his country. This story, of course, has been transformed into a legend, but for all its sentimental trappings and oversimplification, it has nonetheless a firm historical basis and persists as a model and an inspiration. All of this is reinforced by the aptness and familiarity of Lincoln's words, which continue to evoke American ideals -- freedom, equality, and "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

KM: What are the personality traits that contribute to Lincoln's being commonly regarded as a great president?

DLW: Biographers have long recognized that Lincoln's personality was considerably more complicated than the public's perception of him. Reserved, introspective, deeply intellectual, broodingly philosophical -- these are all qualities that those personally closest to Lincoln saw and described. But the public Lincoln was very different, and this is the side of Lincoln that was known and embraced by his fellow Americans. His sense of humor, for example, has become legendary. He was, by all accounts, a simply extraordinary storyteller and had a story for every occasion. He was by nature tender-hearted and, as a result, was compassionate almost to a fault, for he could be prevailed upon by almost anyone in difficulty. He had a sincere love of fairness and justice that transcended ordinary loyalties. And he acquired at an early age a reputation for honesty that he steadfastly maintained both as a lawyer and a politician. These attributes, I believe, have contributed to Lincoln's high standing with the public and their sense of him as a great president.

ROD: To this enumeration I would add the importance of resoluteness in the personality of the private Lincoln. Early in his life he recognized his "ability to keep his resolves" to be "the chief gem" of his character. Such steadfastness was an attribute that was severely tested but not found wanting during the trials and sometime temptations that he endured during his presidency. And while intelligence is not a personality trait, Lincoln's ability to exercise his intelligence without the appearance of arrogance insured that within his cabinet and, eventually, in his communication with the country at large, his leadership could be accepted and effective. At the same time, he was willing to defer to anyone who could demonstrate ability or expertise that was superior to his, such as General Grant, for example.

KM: Do you believe Lincoln could be elected president today?

DLW: Abraham Lincoln was a superb politician, with an uncanny sense of what the public wanted or was ready for. Although the world he occupied was in most respects very different from our own, his political acumen would likely have been the same, and if so, he would presumably have the same chance to be elected president as he had in 1860. But we need to recognize certain unusual elements that figured into his election. The first is that he got the Republican nomination because the convention could not agree on any of the better-known front-runners. The second is that he had the good fortune to run at a time when the Democratic party splintered and divided its votes among three presidential candidates. If he could run under those same conditions today, he could easily be elected.

ROD: I would only add that contemporary ironists insist that Lincoln would be unelectable in the image-conscious 21st century, claiming that his voice would be considered too unpleasant, his clothes too ill-fitting, his manners and accent too uncouth -- in short that he would be perceived too much as a yokel to be a credible candidate, and that this false perception would stand decisively in the way of serious popular attention to whatever message he had to offer, however eloquently delivered. But again, we must remember that Lincoln was a seasoned politician who knew how the game was played in his own time. These talents would persist. In the 21st century, though he might be skeptical about contemporary expectations of political candidates, he would be willing to do, in any legitimate way that did not compromise his honor or dignity, whatever he or others considered necessary for him to be elected.