THE recent rebroadcast of Ken Burns' "Civil War" series reminded us once more that Abraham Lincoln is probably the greatest historical figure America has produced.
Thinking again about the legend of the 16th president made us take another look at historian Richard Hofstadter's essay, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth." The piece, from Hofstadter's 1948 book "The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It," begins:
"The Lincoln legend has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology. Here is a drama in which a great man shoulders the torment and moral burdens of a blundering and sinful people, suffers for them, and redeems them with hallowed Christian virtues -- 'malice toward none and charity for all' -- and is destroyed at the pitch of his success. The worldly-wise John Hay, who knew him about as well as he permitted himself to be known, called him 'the greatest character since Christ,' a comparison one cannot imagine being made of any other political figure of modern times.
"If the Lincoln legend gathers strength from its similarity to the Christian theme of vicarious atonement and redemption, there is still another strain in American experience that it represents equally well. Although his metier was politics and not business, Lincoln was a pre-eminent example of that self-help which Americans have always so admired. He was not, of course, the first eminent American politician who could claim humble origins, nor the first to exploit them. But few have been able to point to such a sudden ascent from relative obscurity to high eminence; none has maintained so completely while scaling the heights the aspect of extreme simplicity; and none has combined with the attainment of success and power such an intense awareness of humanity and moral responsibility. It was precisely in his attainments as a common man that Lincoln felt himself to be remarkable, and in this light that he interpreted to the world the significance of his career. Keenly aware of his role as the exemplar of the self-made man, he played the part with an intense and poignant consistency that gives his performance the quality of a high art. The first author of the Lincoln legend and the greatest of the Lincoln dramatists was Lincoln himself."