By Gordon L. Jones, Ph.D.
How many times have you complained aloud (maybe yelling at your TV), “If I were the president, I would ….?” Well then, go ahead and imagine yourself president of the United States.
Every night you go to bed worried or depressed. Your army is mired in a nasty war. The insurgents are thoroughly motivated by political and religious ideology and equipped with the latest foreign-made weapons smuggled past your checkpoints. You are the commander-in-chief, but your generals sometimes conveniently forget that point. Nothing goes as planned. Thousands die, still more are maimed. And there is no end in sight. Nothing in your limited political experience has prepared you for this.
Meanwhile, the political landscape is more divisive than ever. Each party is convinced that God and the Founding Fathers are on its side and that the triumph of the other party means the end of all personal liberty and the death of republican government. Everybody doubts your judgment, even those within your own party. There is nobody in Washington (not even your dog) who you can call a true friend. All the media outlets are relentlessly partisan. Today you heard another embarrassing story about your wife’s excessive spending. Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win.
OK, you get the picture here. Being president of the United States in these turbulent times is a tough job – maybe even an impossible one. But if you think it’s bad now, you need to think back a few years – 150 years, to be exact. That’s what the Library of Congress has done in “With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition,” which opens at the Atlanta History Center on Sept. 4. With the finest collection of original Lincoln-related documents and artifacts ever to tour the nation, this exhibit provides a healthy dose of historical perspective just when we need it most.
In November 1860, Lincoln was elected to the highest office in the land with less than 40 percent of the popular vote. His entire experience in national government was one term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Eight months later, 11 of the nation’s 34 states had formed their own country and soundly defeated the best army the United States could put in the field. Leaders of the new Confederate States condemned the 52-year-old Washington outsider as a tyrant bent on destroying their liberty. Some Northerners agreed. Meanwhile, about a third of the liberty-loving families in the Confederate States owned 3.5 million Americans, counting them among their horses, cattle and oxen.
An exasperated Lincoln once remarked, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”
For Lincoln, losing the war against the Confederate “insurgents” meant losing it all: The oldest and most successful democratic republic in the world – the “last best hope of earth” – would fragment into tiny pieces and cease to exist. To prevent that catastrophe, Lincoln was willing to do almost anything.
As the exhibit graphically illustrates, he hired and fired, he coerced and cajoled, he made brilliant speeches and not a few blunders, he imprisoned political enemies and he freed 4 million human beings. Somehow Lincoln and the minority of Americans who supported him finally triumphed over the worst circumstances and longest odds imaginable. That triumph made us who we are today.
It also killed 670,000 Americans (including an estimated 50,000 civilians), which was fully 2 percent of our 1860 population of 32 million. If 2 percent of our present-day population of 300 million died, we’d have 6 million bodies on our hands.
Can you imagine us fighting a war on our own soil in which more than a million people are dying every year and yet we still carry on the fight? That gives you some idea of what Americans are willing to do for ideals. Think about that the next time you complain about the president, or the Congress, or the Supreme Court.
History is about perspective. History gives us the comfort of looking at ourselves and our problems in the long view of times past, to help decide what really matters in the present and future. So when you think the United States is on the wrong path or that your personal liberty is gone or that nothing could get any worse – just remember Lincoln.
Gordon L. Jones, Ph.D., is the Senior Military Historian and Curator at the Atlanta History Center, where “With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition” will be on view Sept. 4–Nov. 7.