Sunday, January 11, 2009


After his first narrow defeat, running for a senate seat in Illinois, Lincoln was tentatively offered the position of Governor of the Oregon Territory. I wonder what would have happened, if he had taken it? We would have suited each other down to the ground, I think. We've never been much for pomp and ceremony. The shiftless get-rich-quick settlers were mostly siphoned off to the California goldrush, and good riddance: California's been saddled with that inheritance of greed and goofiness ever since. People here expected to work for a living. Lincoln's homely, shirtsleeve style would have played well here.

It's impossible to see Lincoln as a villain. Shelby Foote says, justly enough: "He would go down to posterity, not primarily as the Preserver of the Republic -- which he was -- but as the Great Emancipator, which he was not." The Emancipation Proclamation, frankly, is a miserable document, "freeing" slaves in the Confederacy (which of course it had at that time no power to do) and leaving them in servitude in the border states (where it could actually have affected them.) Lincoln, as always, was taking the practical course. He was a politician in the mold of Bill Clinton, possibly a little too quick to compromise, a little too responsive to the shifting political breezes. Fortunately for us, he was also a deeply humane and humble man. He wanted to save the Union, and he did save it, by taking on unconstitutional powers and wielding a despotism America had never seen before. In some ways the American Caesar, remarked Dave Bonta, and that's true enough: he marks the turning from the Republic to the Empire. The fact that we took as little harm from it as we did, though, was due I think largely to Lincoln's humanity. He never wanted to be a despot, and every unprejudiced person could see that. To him the issue of the Civil War was never slavery, but whether democracy could really work. He saw clearly enough that if the country split apart every time a really difficult dispute arose, a few generations would see the ruin of the whole experiment.

I have always loved and admired Lincoln. I wrote a report on him in school, in the fourth grade, I think, for which I read a simple and short biography. It's a book I'd like to see again, in the light of what I know now. Whatever it may have done with the facts, it conveyed the man.

I wish he'd come here, and never meddled in national politics again. We wouldn't have shot him. We would have given him a modest, unvisited mossy tombstone down in Salem, Oregon (marked "died 1892," say) instead of an outsize marble chair in Washington, D.C. Maybe Mary Todd would have settled down a bit here -- she would have liked being the first lady of the Territory, I think -- and his home life would have been happier. I like to think of him, old and content, wearing his slippers, reading Shakespeare by the fire. He would have done right by us, and we would have done right by him.

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