When I was growing up in the 1950's, I thought of George Washington as an icon wearing a three cornered hat who had lived in an unimaginably distant past.
The 1850s, the formative decade just before Lincoln was elected President and the (dis)United States went to war over slavery, was easily as partisan and divided as our time and even more violent. The design of U.S. Constitution made it possible for Reaction, in that era dubbed the Slaveocracy, to impose its will on the more populous and "progressive" Free States. (Still true of course: 180.8 million people are represented today by the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats; 141.7 million people are represented by the 51 senators who caucus with the Republicans.) The atrocity that was the slave system flowed into posses of slave catchers invading "free" states in search of escapees, massacres of abolitionists in the disputed Kansas/Nebraska territories, and a vicious assault by a South Carolina Congressman on an abolitionist Massachusetts Senator in the Senate chamber. Politics was a rough enterprise.
In 1855, the future President Lincoln, then a former one term Illinois Congressman sidelined for the time being, wrote a letter to his slave-owning Kentucky friend Joshua Speed drenched in the brutality around him. It includes one of his few recorded descriptions of seeing humans in chains. But "miserable" as he was at the sight of shackled slaves, the sight led him back to his concern for upholding the country's Constitution. His empathy was less for the slaves than for the feelings of Northerners up against the Slave Power.
Lincoln did not hesitate to call out the violence he saw the Slave Power doing to his beloved Constitution and Union, exemplified by the act allowing extensiion of slavery to the Nebraska territory.
The Slave Power had trumped representative democracy, though Lincoln would not have used that language as the "representative" and "democracy" had different meanings at the time.
The letter goes on to come close to despair about the country's violent divisions. It had been easy for additional reactionary energies to emerge as a party of northern anti-immigrant nativism and anti-Catholicism, labelled by contemporaries the "Know Nothings." This served the Slave Power well, dividing their opponents.
The future president seems to have been a good and moral man, moved by aspirations of empathy as well as by shrewd political calculation, by politics as the "art of the possible."
A little over a decade after emancipation and Lincoln's murder, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass summed up what sort of ally Lincoln had been to the Cause at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.
Political geniuses who combine empathy, subtlety, courage, and moral decency obviously are the rarest of leaders. On this Presidents Day, when we are stuck with a petulant infantile narcissist in the White House, it seems right to remember that, once upon a time, there was a president ...