The year 2009 marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and it provides an occasion to honor the memory of America’s greatest president: the savior of the Union and the emancipator of America’s slaves. The festivities have already begun, and they will continue for many months.
Yet it would be a missed opportunity if we simply celebrated Lincoln’s extraordinary achievements. It may sound paradoxical, but by treating Lincoln as a demigod, a person apart, we actually risk devaluing his accomplishments. Before he became a marble monument, before his murder made him a secular saint, he was a thoroughly human being: a man with the temptations of any man, a lawyer who defended causes worthy and questionable, a politician who understood that the prerequisite to effecting his vision for America was getting elected, a president forced to feel his way along a dark path trod by no other occupant of the White House, a commander in chief compelled to master a horrifically daunting craft by trial and error.
Tracing the emergence of Lincoln’s genius requires something that sounds counterintuitive, especially to students of history: We must relinquish the perspective of hindsight. To understand Lincoln we have to put ourselves in his place and time; we have to forget what we know of how his future unfolded; we have to encounter and engage him as he was when that future was as uncertain as the future always is.
In the present issue of American History, and the five issues to follow in 2009, we turn back the clock to six crucial moments in Lincoln’s career—six episodes that tested, revealed and enlarged Lincoln’s character and made him the towering figure he became. Our guide on this journey is historian H.W. Brands, the author of 22 books including Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (November 2008), Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005) and the Pulitzer Prize–nominated The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000). In “Dangerous Ambition,” p. 28, Brands introduces us to Lincoln as a middle-aged lawyer with frustrated ambitions who restarts his political career in the summer of 1858 by running for the Senate from Illinois. He challenges Stephen A. Douglas, the great compromiser on sectional disputes, by asserting a radical claim: that the nation cannot continue to exist half-slave and half-free.