The Man Who Made Us Whole

By Hitchens, Christopher | Newsweek, January 19, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Made Us Whole


Hitchens, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Hitchens; Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a biographer of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

Lincoln, himself, was paradoxical--as is the way we see him now. To really know the 16th president, look past the ways in which we remember him.

Here's the view from the White House as the new president gazes gloomily out of its windows in 1861. The Washington Monument is an abandoned stump, surrounded by scattered blocks of stone. The Capitol has no dome. Slaves toil in the stinking heat, and the Potomac is an open sewer. The Union itself is dissolving like sugar in water. Furious men of god make violent speeches on both sides of the case. In correspondence and in conversation, the big, awkward, provincial politician sometimes observes that he always thought that the idea of a democratic republic would have to survive some kind of cruel ordeal before it could be proven.

To be remembered--to be really and truly and historically remembered and unforgettable--is to be terse and necessarily, sometimes, to be bleak: "And the war came --," "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," "Half slave and half free --," "Of the people, by the people, for the people." The last excerpt is taken from a speech so masterfully brief and understated that the photographer who hoped to record the speaker for the ages did not have enough time to set up his equipment. The two greatest Lincolnian addresses can each fit on one panel of a memorial in Washington that contains a brooding seated sculpture built much less modestly and more to the Ceausescu scale. What does this contrast say?

Our newest president will never have an unphotographed public moment and has a wife whose ancestors were chattel in Lincoln's era. He has taken more time to answer simple media questions than his Illinois predecessor took to deliver a speech at Gettysburg that, it was thought by its author, "the world will little note nor long remember." When Barack Obama booked rooms in the Hay-Adams hotel, one both hopes and believes that he remembered what John Hay wrote of Lincoln ("the greatest character since Christ") but also, in this time of capitalist crisis, bore in mind what Henry Adams said, about the warmest friend of Lincoln and the Union's being Karl Marx. The heavy, brooding statue on the Mall may try to impose unanimity, but the imperishable words on the walls show that there must always be a historic argument. And there must always have been one: those who prate glibly about a "team of rivals" have not really understood that Chase and Seward and Cameron and Stanton were in fact a crew of venomous enemies, all of whom underestimated their leader.

We are not dealing with a plaster saint, then, but the micro-politician Abe and the macro-statesman Lincoln need not be incompatible. The man who defended slavery and the man who initiated its final abolition were one and the same, both selves bidding for votes and also heedful to legalism, to property rights and to the Constitution. Born and raised on the harsh frontier between two irreconcilable systems, Lincoln was geographically predisposed to see both sides. He was 17 years of age when his most admired Thomas Jefferson died. Jefferson had doubled the size of the Union, but only by permitting the fatal extension of slavery into the new territories. Before Lincoln could take his own oath of office, the Union was being maimed and amputated at the rate of about one state per week, and there came a vertiginous moment when trains from New England and New York could not reach Washington, D.C., because of secessionist spirit in Maryland. By the time of Lincoln's own death, the United States had not merely been restored, but was on the verge of becoming a global industrial and political superpower. And--once again to stress how much can be conveyed in how few words--one must remember that, before Gettysburg, people would say, "the United States are --" After Gettysburg, they began to say, "the United States is. …

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