McConnell Op-Ed on Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln
It's become something of a commonplace for people in the public eye to defer to the judgment of future generations when asked about their legacies. "Leave it to the historians" is now a common refrain. But for some, the judgment of history is swift and rarely more so than in the case of the man whose 198th birthday we celebrate on February 12.
History didn't wait to deliver its verdict on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, took care of that right away. The moment Lincoln died, historians tell us, Stanton turned to those who were gathered around the deathbed, and said: "Now he belongs to the ages." Few people since have dared to argue the point.
As the years went by, Lincoln's star only continued to rise. The festivities that marked the centennial of his birth outshone any celebration this nation had ever known. On the sesquicentennial, Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg delivered a stirring speech about Lincoln to a joint session of Congress. Dozens of nations around the world, including Afghanistan and Iran, held tributes of their own.
The immediate, enduring, and near universal acknowledgment of Lincoln's greatness raises an obvious question: Why? Historians have proposed their various answers in thousands of books and articles. Yet nearly all of them note at least as a starting point that Lincoln possessed, above all, a remarkable degree of balance. None deny that Lincoln was ambitious. But they all marvel at his ability to temper that ambition with kindness, generosity, and an unyielding commitment to principles.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, who recently accepted one of two Lincoln Prizes at the White House, underscores Lincoln's ability to balance opposing qualities early on in her rightly-acclaimed 2005 book "Team of Rivals". But Sandburg may have put it best in his Feb. 12, 1959, speech to Congress. "Not often in the story of mankind," he said, "does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is hard as rock and soft as a drifting fog."
These contrasting qualities, combined with the deprivations of Lincoln's youth, still seem to stand out most. Here was a man whose Second Inaugural was described by the London Spectator as "the noblest political document known to history," but whose father could barely sign his own name; who knew humiliating poverty and painful loss as a child, but who was known for his good humor and benevolence later in life. Someone once called Lyndon Johnson an "an anthology of opposites." It was true of Lincoln first.
I have been thinking about Abraham Lincoln recently not only because of his approaching birthday and Kentucky roots, but because of the view from my desk. Last month I moved into a new office in the Capitol that looks west along the National Mall. Now, when I sit down to work, I face Lincoln head on. There are many lessons one could draw from that marble gaze. And as we approach the bicentennial of his birth, it's good to make the effort. But the first is probably this: legacies are shaped in life, not death, and only bad ones by design.
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is the U.S. Senate Republican Leader