The greatness of Lincoln was that of a common man raised to a high dimension. The possibility, still more the existence, of such a man is itself a justification of democracy. We do not say that so independent, so natural, so complete a man cannot in older societies come to wield so large a power over the affairs and the minds of men; we can only say that amid all the stirring movements of the nineteenth century he has not so done. The existence of what may be called a widespread commonalty explains the rarity of personal eminence in America. There has been and still remains a higher general level of personality than in any European country, and the degree of eminence is correspondingly reduced. It is just because America has stood for opportunity that conspicuous individuals have been comparatively rare. Strong personality, however, has not been rare; it is the abundance of such personality that has built up silently into the rising fabric of the American Commonwealth, pioneers, roadmakers, traders, lawyers, soldiers, teachers, toiling terribly over the material and moral foundation of the country, few of whose names have emerged or survived. Lincoln was of this stock, was reared among these rude energetic folk, had lived all those sorts of lives. He was no “sport”; his career is a triumphant refutation of the traditional views of genius. He had no special gift or quality to distinguish him; he was simply the best type of American at a historic juncture when the national safety wanted such a man. The confidence which all Americans express that their country will be equal to any emergency which may threaten it, is not so entirely superstitious as it seems at first sight. For the career of Lincoln shows how it has been done in a country where the “necessary man” can be drawn not from a few leading families, or an educated class, but from the millions.
Rabbi Schechter, in an eloquent address delivered at the Centennial celebration, speaks of Lincoln’s personality as follows:
The half century that has elapsed since Lincoln’s death has dispelled the mists that encompassed him on earth. Men now not only recognise the right which he championed, but behold in him the standard of righteousness, of liberty, of conciliation, and truth. In him, as it were personified, stands the Union, all that is best and noblest and enduring in its principles in which he devoutly believed and served mightily to save. When to-day, the world celebrates the century of his existence, he has become the ideal of both North and South, of a common country, composed not only of the factions that once confronted each other in war’s dreadful array, but of the myriad thousands that have since found in the American nation the hope of the future and the refuge from age-entrenched wrong and absolutism. To them, Lincoln, his life, his history, his character, his entire personality, with all its wondrous charm and grace, its sobriety, patience, self-abnegation, and sweetness, has come to be the very prototype of a rising humanity.
Carl Schurz, himself a man of large nature and wide and sympathetic comprehension, says of Lincoln: