Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Lincoln Legend

This evocation of the extraordinary contrasts in the life and character of Abraham Lincoln comes from Carl Schurz. Schurz was himself a grand figure in American history. He arrived in this country fleeing persecution in his native Germany, a casualty of Europe's failed bid for liberal principles in 1848; for the next six decades he was a commanding and beneficent intellectual force in the nation's debates. The following passage comes at the end of his beautiful short book on Lincoln, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1891.

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To the younger generation Abraham Lincoln has already become a half-mythical figure, which, in the haze of historic distance, grows to more and more heroic proportions, but also loses in distinctness of outline and feature.  This is indeed the common lot of popular heroes; but the Lincoln legend will be more than ordinarily apt to become fanciful, as his individuality, assembling seemingly incongruous qualities and forces in a character at the same time grand and most lovable, was so unique, and his character so abounding in startling contrasts.  As the state of society in which Abraham Lincoln grew up passes away, the world will read with increasing wonder of the man who, not only of the humblest origin, but remaining the simplest and more unpretending of citizens, was raised to a position of power unprecedented in our history; who was the gentlest and most peace-loving of mortals, unable to see any creature suffer without a pang in his own breast, and suddenly found himself called to conduct the greatest and bloodiest of our wars; who wielded the power of government when stern resolution and relentless force were the order of the day, and then won and ruled the popular mind and heart by the tender sympathies of his nature; who was a cautious conservative by temperament and mental habit, and led the most sudden and sweeping social revolution of our time; who, preserving his homely speech and rustic manner even in the most conspicuous position of that period, drew upon himself the scoffs of political society, and then thrilled the soul of mankind with utterances of wonderful beauty and grandeur; who, in his heart the best friend of the defeated South, was murdered because a crazy fanatic took him for its most cruel enemy; who, while in power, was beyond measure lampooned and maligned by sectional passion and an excited party spirit, and around whose bier friend and foe gathered to praise him -- which they have since never ceased to do -- as one of the greatest of Americans and the best of men.