This is a word of thanks for Abraham Lincoln in spite and because of his imperfections on his 200th birthday.
Two years before Lincoln became our 16th President he debated Stephen Douglas in pursuit of the Illinois U. S. Senate seat. Lincoln lost. He was too progressive on the issue of slavery for a state that made it a crime to bring into its boundaries “a person having in him one-fourth Negro blood, whether free or slave.”
But the debates did bring out the virtually universal racism of 19th century America including Abraham Lincoln's. For all his greatness—and it is extraordinary—Lincoln was a child of his time on matters of race (as we all are). He became the Republican candidate because his two main rivals (Seward and Chase) were more progressive than he was.
In the 1858 Senate debates Douglas baited Lincoln with the assertion that
the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fiji Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men…. I hold that this government was established...for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.
In response, Lincoln said he had “no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races.” He was not in favor of “making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry.” He said there is a “physical difference between the two” that would “probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.”
Nevertheless Lincoln argued,
[T]here is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence… I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral and intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.
Emancipation would come and Lincoln would be celebrated as a hero in that cause. But like every hero, his feet are clay. That is what human greatness is—deeply flawed.
There is one hero, and only one, who will not let you down—Jesus Christ. All other heroes fail us, and the reason they do is to point us to Christ. There is no one more admirable, and more worthy of our praise, than Christ. At the very moment when he looked least praiseworthy, he was achieving the highest triumph of love—his death.
I thank God for Abraham Lincoln today. And among other great reasons one of them is: admiring and disillusioned I turn to Jesus.
* * *
Quotes in this post are from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, pages 204-205.