Abraham Lincoln's influence on the history of the United States was so great that poet Wait Whitman maintained that Lincoln's legacy would be even stronger and more lasting than that of George Washington. This year in 2009, two events worthy of reflection will occur: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, and the inauguration of the first black president in the history of the United States.
Lincoln had to face one of the most complex challenges in the history of the country: the collapse of a world based on slavery and the emergence of another world in which a truly united United States could undergo dramatic and sustained development and become the most powerful country on the planet. At the time, it was not only the unity of the states and territories that was at stake, but also the principles on which the United States had been established. The clash of two worlds and two visions gave rise to the War of Secession, or Civil War, with the Union states of the North pitted against the Confederate states of the South. It ended in the deaths of a half a million Americans, but also made possible the emancipation of three million black slaves.
Lincoln's biography has been written many times so it is difficult to say something that has not already been said. But every time we get a glimpse of his personality and what he actually accomplished, we find life stories, memorable phrases, and incredible feats that corroborate what we already know: a man's destiny is shaped by the obstacles he faces along the way. Lincoln was the best example of this. He came from very humble origins and made a living with simple jobs (wood cutter, failed merchant). He then went on to become a legislator of Illinois, an advocate against the extension of slavery, a candidate of the nascent Republican Party, the President of the United States, and, finally, a martyr of democracy.
Lincoln was a sell-educated man. His Me experience, insightful observation of human nature, and keen intelligence made him who he was. In a simple autobiographical note in 1859 he said: "Of course, when I came of age I did not know much. Still, somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the rule of three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity." Lincoln's years as legislator in Illinois gave him political experience and helped him to become a lawyer. Most biographers recognize that he was a great reader of the Bible and that he knew Shakespeare inside and out. In fact, he quoted from both sources frequently in his speeches and letters. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Lincoln is that he was, above all else, a man of principles, a politician sui generis who believed in the essential virtue of democracy for resolving conflicts. He believed this in spite of the fact that history placed him at a crossroads in which he had to go to war to save the nation. He knew that slavery would be curtailed and eventually suppressed only if the Union held together and, conversely, that the foundations of the Union would be undermined if slavery continued. History proved him right, but unfortunately Lincoln didn't have time to think about the immense legacy he would leave or the great changes that would accompany the victory of the Union.
One of Lincoln's strongest personality traits was his reconciling spirit. Not even in the worst moments of a war as cruel as the Civil War did he look at the Confederates with hatred. He had a great capacity for putting himself in the shoes of the other. 'Would I not do the same thing if I were in my enemy's position?' he asked himself. He maintained that integrity and that way of approaching problems in both his public and private life, as story after story about him attest. One of his famous quotes is: "Do I not destroy my enemy by making him my friend? …