Lincoln: A paradigm for pragmatism

My first visit to the Lincoln Memorial was in 1979 as a college freshman, and it got me thinking about our 16th president ever since. The spring day I had chosen for my trip was all blue skies on the Mall, laced with the scent of cherry blossoms.

What startled me most was silence. Ascending the stairs of the Hellenistic temple was like scaling Mount Olympus. Once inside, when facing the marble colossus of President Lincoln seated in what seemed like a throne, the one thing that evaporated was sound.

The statue sits in an eternal moment of silence. Nearby signs mandate quiet. Guards move toward anyone uttering above a whisper. But when I was there no one needed prompting; it was a solemn place. Much of Lincoln's reputation is based on popular images of a gentle Illinois politician who won the Civil War and ended slavery. It's simplistic, and works. All societies need icons; Lincoln tops our list.

But Lincoln was far from a backwoods Honest Abe. This week, with the opening of Steven Spielberg's biopic "Lincoln," which dispels mythology, a refresher seems timely.

Lincoln was a paradigm for pragmatism. He mixed in the homespun with some Machiavelli and avoided history's scorn as a dictator. Today, he is widely regarded as our greatest president.

Martyrdom aided that cause, in much the same way it gave John F. Kennedy's persona a new lease on idolatry. But Lincoln was faced with dreadful hurdles from the start of his tenure in office, and his accomplishments are studies in astute, if not unpopular, command.

Lincoln faced a constitutional crisis unlike any since. After a bruising electoral campaign, by the 1861 inauguration he had inherited seven seceded states. At the heart of Southern dissent was the issue of states' right, sparked by the catalyst of slavery.

The president was torn between Radical Republicans, a splinter group supporting immediate abolition of slavery; mainstream Republicans who favored a slower approach; and Democrats, who at best were ambivalent to the idea.

He tried conciliation in his inaugural address, but stayed determined not to lose the Union: "You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it."

Lincoln was good for his word. At a time when military commanders were political appointees, he chewed up one general after another until he found in Ulysses S. Grant someone who could fight, and who wanted to win.

Lincoln assessed the war against the South as one of victory through attrition. This meant kill more of them than they do of us, and cripple their ability to wage further battle. Grant was good at the former, and eventually mastered the latter.

The president's own muscle-flexing followed. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus partially in 1861 and then nationwide in 1862. The government arrested more than 13,000 citizens, often arbitrarily. With the battlefield tide turning in his favor, Lincoln's opponents attacked this disregard of the Constitution and civil liberties.

Yet Lincoln interpreted his wartime presidential role as having power enough to ignore the Constitution in order to abolish slavery. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and in 1864 endorsed the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln's assassination retarded national reconciliation and set back civil rights by almost a century. But once those wheels turned, there was no changing direction; the only issue was time. Lincoln's persistence was part of his greater vision, which he powerfully expressed at Gettysburg:

"That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

In 2009, when Barack Obama - also once an obscure Illinois politician - was sworn in as our nation's first black president, the entire day was a Lincoln retrospective. Among other events, Mr. Obama took the oath of office on Lincoln's bible. With that moment, Lincoln's legacy was complete.

Asked recently by a friend if I had attended that historic event, I answered no, that I'm not much for crowds anymore. Instead, I told him of my second visit to the Lincoln Memorial, just earlier this year, more than three decades removed from the first.

It wasn't spring, but winter. When I entered the main chamber, except for the guards, I was alone. Before approaching Lincoln's statue, I reached in my pocket and turned off my cell phone. I didn't want anything to break the silence. Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. You may e-mail him at


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