Thursday, February 12, 2009

By the shadowy and inconclusive light of contingency

I don't know nearly as much as I would like about American history, and I'm no expert on Abraham Lincoln.

However, there are a couple of excellent passages in Wilfred W. McClay's essay at Humanities on the sixteenth president:

Out of respect to the man, we should at least try to recover a sense of both the grandeur and the contingency of the history that he lived through, and helped to shape. To see a statesman in full, and thereby learn something about the nature of statesmanship, one needs to see him not only in the overly clear light of retrospection, but in the shadowy and inconclusive light of the conditions he faced as they were unfolding. “I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln mused during the course of his presidency, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”


We need to remember that this is often how history happens. Background music does not swell at the crucial moment, and trumpets do not sound, when the events of history are actually taking place. The orator or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will judge him harshly. Few great men have felt this burden more completely than Lincoln.

We also need to remember how likely it seemed to Lincoln and others that he would lose the 1864 election, and thereby experience ignominious defeat and see the disintegration of the Union cause as he had fought for it. Had it not been for the miracle of Sherman’s and Grant’s decisive victories in the field, such a defeat at the polls would have been likely, as the American people had grown weary of this frustrating struggle. Add to this bleak outlook the weight of Lincoln’s relentlessly self-examining and depressive temperament and his constant, lonely struggles with a crippling sense of failure, and the sheer resiliency of the man becomes awe-inspiring, in ways a marble temple could never convey.

Having been no stranger (in my own humble way) either to relentless self-examination or an occasionally debilitating sense of failure, there is much to agree with there.

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