I admit this is a rather odd topic for this blog, and yet it is spot on given what I am reading these days.
When riding the legal circuit Abraham Lincoln loved to gather with his fellow lawyers and townspeople and talk late into the night. Often the scene is painted of Lincoln at the center telling wonderful tales and funny stories. But there were also many times when “conversation ranged through metaphysics of thought and experience” as Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in Team Of Rivals.
During one such discussion those gathered talked about whether the first president was perfect. They talked about George Washington, and wondered given his outstanding leadership role in the nation if he was fallible.
Lincoln thought there was merit to keeping with the view that Washington should be thought of without blemish. “It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect, that human perfection is possible.”
Now clearly that is not possible, and Washington was more than fallible.
But the very idea that such a topic was presented, and viewed in the context Lincoln did says a great deal about the political landscape in the 1850’s. It also says a great deal about who we are today when viewing such a statement against our own national tumult between the political parties.
The men who talked late into the night at the taverns of Lincoln’s time did not have the resources yet gathered in books about Washington as Joseph Ellis, and so many others would do over the generations. That does not mean that Washington was less a leader the more we learn of him, but the complete man starts to become clear and his motivations and political acts are better defined and understood. The myth evaporates the more we learn.
And is that a good thing or bad?
Lincoln might seriously wonder, given his statement in Illinois on the circuit.
My Mom might agree in part with Lincoln. There were times over the years as I read about this president or that well-known politician that I would pass along the nuggets that were either newly discovered and written about, or at least were new to me. She would at times say there was no reason everyone should know all those things about a president or leader.
I recall clearly her disagreement with the press talking about President Carter’s hemorrhoids, and she always felt it out-of-bounds when news about who Thomas Jefferson slept with was made known. When polyps were found in President Reagan’s colon there was also mention back home from Mom about the ‘need to know’.
I tried to argue is was important history have a complete record, as then better insight can be made about the past. Mom was never totally convinced.
I would love to hear what Lincoln would say about the tone of our politics, and if there was ever a way to think one person in our national life was perfect and should be thought of as not fallible.
On the one hand it was high-minded and lofty of Lincoln to place Washington on such a pedestal. I think Lincoln’s ideals were much on display when he made the statement. But the comment was made before the Civil War when human nature was about to display itself in a most awful way.
Lincoln would have had so many different views had time allowed for him to gain more perspective after the war ended.