Christopher Hitchens: Lincoln ... The Man Who Made Us Whole

Roundup: Talking About History

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....
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