09 October 2007

Lincoln, Lincoln I've been thinkin'

Reading about the American hero Abraham Lincoln in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, I'm struck by the complexity of his character. And that leads me to wonder: What is a good person? Lincoln was by no means immune to faults; he campaigned to elect Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder, to the presidency, and did a few other questionable things. Was emancipation a political expediency? His relationship to Mary Todd was at some points judged callous. At no time, however, am I inclined to consider him less than a hero of the republic. The vast accomplishments of his presidency, his grace in dealing with morally repugnant choices and his clear vision of the rightness of the American Union subsume all his faults. But, for us ordinary mortals, what faults are subsumable? Is it proportional to the greatness of our deeds?

In any case, the overriding trait of Lincoln's that Goodwin focuses upon is his magnanimity, and consistent adherence to an ethical standard that permitted him to be generous in forgiving past faults in order to align people to his future vision. Quite an interesting read to get so close to such a man as Lincoln by seeing him from the perspective of his peers. Kind of an in situ analysis, vs. the more archeological-style museum pieces that some paeans of Lincoln turn out to be.