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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.

Some of my readers may protest that I have over-emphasized the difference between Lincoln and his contemporary fellow-countrymen.  In order to exalt the leader have I not too much disparaged the followers?  Well, a comparison of this kind always involves the risk of unfairness; but if there is much truth in the foregoing estimate of Lincoln, the lessons of the comparison are worth its inevitable risk.  The ordinary interpretation of Lincoln as a consummate democrat and a “Man of the People” has implied that he was, like Jackson, simply a bigger and a better version of the plain American citizen; and it is just this interpretation which I have sought to deny and to expose.  In many respects he was, of course, very much like his neighbors and associates.  He accepted everything wholesome and useful in their life and behavior.  He shared their good-fellowship, their strength of will, their excellent faith, and above all their innocence; and he could never have served his country so well, or reached as high a level of personal dignity, in case he had not been good-natured and strong and innocent.  But, as all commentators have noted, he was not only good-natured, strong and innocent; he had made himself intellectually candid, concentrated, and disinterested, and morally humane, magnanimous, and humble.  All these qualities, which were the very flower of his personal life, were not possessed either by the average or the exceptional American of his day; and not only were they not possessed, but they were either wholly ignored or consciously under-valued.  Yet these very qualities of high intelligence, humanity, magnanimity and humility are precisely the qualities which Americans, in order to become better democrats, should add to their strength, their homogeneity, and their innocence; while at the same time they are just the qualities which Americans are prevented by their individualistic practice and tradition from attaining or properly valuing.  Their deepest convictions make the average unintelligent man the representative democrat, and the aggressive successful individual, the admirable national type; and in conformity with these convictions their uppermost ideas in respect to Lincoln are that he was a “Man of the People” and an example of strong will.  He was both of these things, but his great distinction is that he was also something vastly more and better.  He cannot be fully understood and properly valued as a national hero without an implicit criticism of those traditional convictions.  Such a criticism he himself did not and could not make.  In case he had made it, he could never have achieved his great political task and his great personal triumph.  But other times bring other needs.  It is as desirable to-day that the criticism should be made explicit as it was that Lincoln himself in his day should preserve the innocence and integrity of a unique unconscious example.

CHAPTER V

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