Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth



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Grades 11-CCR Text Exemplars
Informational Texts: English Language Arts
Hofstadter, Richard. “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth.” The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York: Vintage, 1974. (1948)
Lincoln was shaken by the presidency. Back in Springfield, politics had been a sort of exhilarating game; but in the White House, politics was power, and power was responsibility. Never before had Lincoln held executive office. In public life he had always been an insignificant legislator whose votes were cast in concert with others and whose decisions in themselves had neither finality nor importance. As President he might consult with others, but innumerable grave decisions were in the end his own, and with them came a burden of responsibility terrifying in its dimensions.
Lincoln’s rage for personal success, his external and worldly ambition, was quieted when he entered the White House, and he was at last left alone to reckon with himself. To be confronted with the fruits of his victory only to find that it meant choosing between life and death for others was immensely sobering. That Lincoln should have shouldered the moral burden of the war was characteristic of the high seriousness into which he had grown since 1854; and it may be true, as Professor Charles W. Ramsdell suggested, that he was stricken by an awareness of his own part in whipping up the crisis. This would go far to explain the desperation with which he issued pardons and the charity that he wanted to extend to the conquered South at the war’s close. In one of his rare moments of selfrevelation he is reported to have said: “Now I don’t know what the soul is, but whatever it is, I know that it can humble itself.” The great prose of the presidential years came from a soul that had been humbled. Lincoln’s utter lack of personal malice during these years, his humane detachment, his tragic sense of life, have no parallel in political history.


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