It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that America is an incredibly polarized nation right now. In a world where even simple facts have become incessantly debated, it seems that there is still one topic that politicians from both sides of the aisle agree on: Abraham Lincoln was a great president.
On Jan. 13, the U.S. House of Representatives met to debate an article of impeachment for Donald Trump, following the seditious insurrection he promoted at the Capitol the week before. The polarization was on full display, with each Democrat falling in line behind Jerry Nadler and each Republican taking their cues from Jim Jordan, and hearing how each side described the events could easily convince someone that the two camps were talking about completely separate events. The constant, as mentioned above, was the invocation of the 16th president’s name.
Of the congresspeople that gave testimony, 11 of them brought up Lincoln, with seven on the Democratic side (Pelosi, Cicilline, Neguse, Khanna, Himes, Casten and Hoyer) and four for the Republicans (McCarthy, Scalise, McClintock and Chabot). This list includes the two highest-ranking members of both parties, so clearly an admiration for Lincoln runs very deep on both sides.
But now that we’ve identified the fact that Lincoln is a beloved figure, why is that bad? Well in truth, saying that Lincoln was a good president is not a sin. However, he was president over 150 years ago, in a time America should not be proud of, and his example is certainly not a perfect one for today’s world. Perhaps Lincoln’s most famous accomplishment is the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in the north at the time of signing. The first problem one can see with this is that it was signed more than two years into the Civil War, which illustrates where Lincoln’s priorities laid. “The Great Emancipator” was much more focused on preserving the Union than ending slavery outright, and while he eventually came around to the idea that the Civil War was being fought to end slavery, this hesitation perfectly answers why Lincoln is so frequently quoted by our nation’s politicians.
Once again we find ourselves at a moment of extreme polarization, and the moderation of Lincoln is on full display from both sides. Just as the 1860s was an era that required vigilance and strong acts to allow for progression in this country, so do the 2020s. Unfortunately, the true Lincoln seems to be recognized more by the Republicans of today, who use his words to explain why we need unity. To them, unity means compromise, which means even more time waiting for radical change to come. Democrats who look to Lincoln see a progressive hero, but what was progressive a century and a half ago is conservative now.
Joe Biden just became the 30th person to hold the office after Lincoln held it, and even now he faces a similar decision. The right is trying to pull him their way, to keep him from enacting much needed reform, even occasionally throwing out threats of secession. It will be up to him and his staff to decide whether preserving superficial unity is more important than realizing actual liberty and justice for all, or if they are willing to fight for what is right.
In the end, Abraham Lincoln should not be referred to as a bad president. However, he was not deserving of the pedestal we continually place him on. He made decisions based on what he thought was right at the time that he lived in, and the abolition of slavery should not be diminished as an incredibly important moment in the history of this country. But giving Lincoln a lot of the credit for that accomplishment is unfair to all the others, some far more radical, who risked everything for what they believed in. Lincoln was a stepping stone in a large pyramid, one we’re still in the process of building toward a nation where everyone is given equal rights in every facet of life, and while it’s okay to acknowledge this step, giving it the immense prominence it gets to this day is counterproductive.