The Promise of American Life eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 523 pages of information about The Promise of American Life.

III

LINCOLN AS MORE THAN AN AMERICAN

Lincoln’s services to his country have been rewarded with such abundant appreciation that it may seem superfluous to insist upon them once again; but I believe that from the point of view of this book an even higher value may be placed, if not upon his patriotic service, at least upon his personal worth.  The Union might well have been saved and slavery extinguished without his assistance; but the life of no other American has revealed with anything like the same completeness the peculiar moral promise of genuine democracy.  He shows us by the full but unconscious integrity of his example the kind of human excellence which a political and social democracy may and should fashion; and its most grateful and hopeful aspect is, not merely that there is something partially American about the manner of his excellence, but that it can be fairly compared with the classic types of consummate personal distinction.

To all appearance nobody could have been more than Abraham Lincoln a man of his own time and place.  Until 1858 his outer life ran much in the same groove as that of hundreds of other Western politicians and lawyers.  Beginning as a poor and ignorant boy, even less provided with props and stepping-stones than were his associates, he had worked his way to a position of ordinary professional and political distinction.  He was not, like Douglas, a brilliant success.  He was not, like Grant, an apparently hopeless failure.  He had achieved as much and as little as hundreds of others had achieved.  He was respected by his neighbors as an honest man and as a competent lawyer.  They credited him with ability, but not to any extraordinary extent.  No one would have pointed him out as a remarkable and distinguished man.  He had shown himself to be desirous of recognition and influence; but ambition had not been the compelling motive in his life.  In most respects his ideas, interests, and standards were precisely the same as those of his associates.  He accepted with them the fabric of traditional American political thought and the ordinary standards of contemporary political morality.  He had none of the moral strenuousness of the reformer, none of the exclusiveness of a man, whose purposes and ideas were consciously perched higher than those of his neighbors.  Probably the majority of his more successful associates classed him as a good and able man who was somewhat lacking in ambition and had too much of a disposition to loaf.  He was most at home, not in his own house, but in the corner grocery store, where he could sit with his feet on the stove swapping stories with his friends; and if an English traveler of 1850 had happened in on the group, he would most assuredly have discovered another instance of the distressing vulgarity to which the absence of an hereditary aristocracy and an established church condemned the American democracy.  Thus no man could apparently have been more the average product of his day and generation.  Nevertheless, at bottom, Abraham Lincoln differed as essentially from the ordinary Western American of the Middle Period as St. Francis of Assisi differed from the ordinary Benedictine monk of the thirteenth century.

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The Promise of American Life from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.