“I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. And that’s, I think, probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people that take the time to discover him… I wish he had stayed [with me] forever.” – Daniel Day-Lewis
I remember the moment when I learned that Lincoln was everyone’s favorite president.
Like most children, I both desperately desired to fit in and hoped to stand out. I was a strange one, though. I loved reading more than breathing. While my classmates harvested corn and raised cows for 4H, I considered reading while walking around the homestead’s perimeter a valuable use of the outdoors.
My love for stories fed into a passion for history—real-life stories. As a child, I was drawn to the Revolutionary and Civil wars. I etched the photographs of young soldiers with muskets into my head, memorized the battles and the generals. I grieved for the human lives poured out onto fields like the ones that surrounded my home, and I coveted any act of bravery, any rousing speech, any imposing individual who could help me understand.
I found Abraham Lincoln. The more I read about the man, the more I felt equal parts admiration and kinship.
We had plenty of things in common, despite that he had been dead for over 100 years and he was the 16th president of the United States. He was witty, and moderate. He told stories, read often, and loved his family. He seemed to be someone who was melancholy, quiet, and introspective. And he was from the Midwest. He and I, we were kin.
What really sold me were his looks. If you study him objectively, and not as the guy on the penny, Lincoln was a strange-looking individual. His face was gaunt; he was thin; his legs were long. He seemed quirky and awkward and ungainly, someone who stood out in a crowd and not in a good way. As a child, I understood this, and I loved him for it. He gave me hope: not that I was capable of abolishing evil, but I was capable of overcoming awkwardness.
A common vacation in South Dakota is going to the Black Hills and visiting Mount Rushmore. A big rock with faces of America’s greatest (arguably) presidents carved into it, Rushmore is South Dakota’s claim to any sort of fame or tourism. The site really is impressive, if you didn’t grow up visiting it every year. But for those of us who did, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were always there, wearing the same grave faces.
One year, in the gift shop-slash-ice cream parlor, there was an electronic voting machine, like a ballot box. You could touch the buttons and vote for your favorite president, beyond just the four fellows outside on the rock. Your vote would join those of thousands of other sweaty tourists who stopped to give their perspective.
I chose Lincoln, of course. And apparently, so did everyone else. I don’t recall the exact percentage, but at least 75% of respondents replied that Lincoln was their favorite president. Kennedy came in second, with Roosevelt pretty far behind.
I was devastated. Instead of celebrating my favorite president’s number one status, I felt betrayed. The mass public loved Lincoln? Lincoln, the funny-haired, the gangly, the thin and awkward? They just liked him because of that whole slavery thing. I was the one who understood him. I deserved to have him as my favorite; no one else could. (This irrational need to own has continued to be an issue. I’m aware of it.)
As I matured and learned, I started to see the grey of Lincoln’s reign. Expert opinions flew at me from all sides. He only wanted to keep the union together; he cared deeply about equality. He cared only about the country; he only cared for his family. He was gay; he was a loving husband. He was an atheist; he was a strong Christian; he was an universalist. He was too trusting, he was too cynical. He was virtuous; he was manipulative.
We all contain such contradictions, don’t we?
Despite the confusion, I continue to think of Lincoln as historical friend, someone who inspires, amuses, and gives hope to a now-adult odd duck who still loves stories. So obviously, I was interested in the recent movie that took a piece of Lincoln’s life and made it live. No, not Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter; the other one.
The film was most impressive and affecting. Daniel Day-Lewis wasn’t on-screen at all; it was only Lincoln, with his rounded shoulders, his tall hat, his slight smile, and his penchant for stories. I was amazed and gratified to see my friend come to life. Instead of just existing in a history book or in my mind, he was living and breathing. I was in fourth grade again, star-struck by a historical figure, awed by a dead man.
Lincoln continues to be a powerful figure. Not because he freed the slaves, which he did. Not because he won the war, which he did. Not because he died before he could die out, which he did. But because he believed the United States as a nation could be better and it could be whole. These are two things that this generation struggles to understand. We have trouble believing it will get much better, and we definitely don’t believe that we can be whole. We saw what happened with the rah-rah-rah patriotism after 9-11 that pushed us into a war we couldn’t win.
The movie, while being romantic and lovely, reminds us of a time in America that was brutal and horrific. It was a time when America was divided, far further than we are now. So divided. Broken in half. This division was based on the oppression of people. Like now…but worse. I’m sure citizens during that time thought there was no way out, no hope.
Lincoln was an optimist in a time of grave horror. I don’t understand how he could have been, but because he was, our country shifted to the light. To pointing toward true north.
There’s a scene in the movie when Lincoln and Stevens are arguing (spoiler alert: the entire movie is arguments in fancy White House rooms). Stevens is holding onto his ideals, the idea that all people are equal: this means equal in every way, and this will be a problem, even for the North. Lincoln counters with an analogy about a compass. He says a compass can point due north, but it doesn’t tell you what obstacles or swamps are in your way. He says, “If you can’t avoid the swamps, what good is true north?”
That stuck with me as being relevant for me, for all of us, now. It’s not enough to just have your morals and your perspective, your high-ground and your opinions. Because you might find yourself at the bottom of a hole on your way there. Heading true north is not easy, and sometimes you might need to go around the hole in ways that are uncomfortable. But that’s life.
Start walking, dividing your time between looking at the compass and looking at the horizon. As long as you keep trying to get there, adjusting your course when necessary, you’ll get there.
That’s what Lincoln did. He saw true north, and he got there by telling stories, giving out positions, gaining votes in any way he could. He did this because he believed this country needed to stay together, but it also needed to change. True north wouldn’t change, but how we got there—that might have to change.
Maybe to get to where I’m going, I might have to change too.
I doubt Lincoln actually said the compass analogy, but I like to think that if he saw that scene, he would have smiled, and made a remark about how not only is he far more good-looking on screen, he’s also better-spoken. That’s why we’re friends, Lincoln and I.