What Lincoln’s life teaches us about monuments

That Americans still debate his views — one respected author argued in a book not long ago that Lincoln “detested” abolitionists and “wanted nothing to do with them” — is not our fault, however. Lincoln was cagey in his actions and sometimes deliberately misleading with his words. We know this was intentional because the man who wrote the Gettysburg Address was unsurpassed in his ability to be definitive when he wished to be.

His deliberate ambiguity served two goals: to win the presidency in a country much more ambivalent than he was himself, and to bind both ends of the Union coalition — three slave states on one end of the spectrum and such visionaries as Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner on the other end — long enough to crush the Confederate rebellion.

Lincoln’s stratagems were on display in his famous (infamous?) reply to newspaper editor Horace Greeley in August 1862. Displaying an apparent and appalling callousness, Lincoln wrote that his sole priority was to “save the Union” — whether that meant freeing all slaves, or freeing no slaves, or freeing some and not others. But consider the context: Lincoln knew as he wrote those lines that he was going to issue his Emancipation Proclamation and that this would be hugely controversial, possibly shattering the Union. He used Greeley as an avenue to reach conservative Northern voters and educate them in the necessary linkage between ending slavery and winning the war. With cool pragmatism, he laid the foundation for a step that, in the opinion of the great abolitionist Sumner, put Lincoln “so far above human approach that human envy cannot reach him.”

And yet, would Lincoln have been still more admirable if he had been less dodgy about his views and less strategically incremental with his policies? If he had said and done the most morally pure thing possible in every circumstance, regardless of public opinion? Maybe so. But he would never have become president. Someone else, someone less politically adept, would have taken office in 1861. What might have followed is impossible to know.

Great elected leaders call us to high ideals, but in democracies they are rarely idealists themselves. Let me rephrase that: Great leaders in democracies cannot be exclusively idealistic. They must also be effective, and to be effective, they must be elected. When we build memorials to them or carve their faces into a mountain, we have their practical achievements in mind — and the work that remains to be done.

Like the others on Mount Rushmore, Lincoln doesn’t need President Trump’s blustery defense and hagiographic eulogy so much as he could use more nuanced and informed examination. The best and most useful monuments are those that stimulate, rather than squelch, critical thinking. They direct our gaze forward as well as back.

Lincoln, for example, drew purpose from Thomas Jefferson. He knew perfectly well the hypocrisy involved in owning slaves while declaring human equality. (Jefferson knew his own hypocrisy and trembled to “reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”) That human paradox, the reach that exceeded Jefferson’s grasp, gave Lincoln his life’s work. As he pledged at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Lincoln intended to square the laws of the nation with the promise of Jefferson’s declaration, or die trying.

In the end, you could say, he did both. What he failed to do, and even seemed to dread attempting, was to eradicate the prejudice and tribalism that made slavery thinkable in the first place. His attention to public opinion was so acute that he despaired of the possibility of a truly just and equal multiracial society.

Any monument to Lincoln, fully understood, points to his unfulfilled mission. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood. That’s why he climbed the steps of Lincoln’s memorial in Washington on a hot August day in 1963 to speak of a dream still to be realized. In his imperfections and inadequacies, Lincoln left important work still to be done.

The past is of no use to anyone except in service to the future. If, some blessed day, our nation fulfills its every aspiration, those distant descendants can freeze the moment and revere as they please. Until that time, our monuments must, of necessity, honor the imperfect and the incomplete. Keep those that goad us forward; remove those that lure us backward. Neither our demagogic president, nor vandals in the night, should stifle the inquiry into which monuments are which.

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