Three portraits for Presidents Day

by Wolf Pascoe on February 14, 2012

Cameraman: Just look natural.
Lincoln: That is what I would like to avoid.

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I love that this face, the hardscrabble prairie written in its lines, makes no apologies for itself. Resignation is there, and loss. The loss, when a boy of nine, of his mother, loss of his first, great love, loss of his second son. Yet open, curious, in retrospect even innocent, he seems ready almost to break into a smile. One can do business with this man. One wants to know him better.

It is May 7, 1858, a month before his nomination to be Republican Senator from Illinois, opposing the Democrat, Stephen Douglas. The two men differ over the issue of slavery. Republicans want it confined to the South. Democrats want new states to decide for themselves.

Though well-known in Illinois, Lincoln is obscure nationally, a prairie lawyer and local politician, with one undistinguished term as a U.S. Congressman a decade ago. He is 49 years old.

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October 4, 1859. The innocence is gone here. In its place, a wariness. The intelligence behind the eyes, formidable. Not quite cold, but not warm either. Evaluating. I feel utterly seen by this man. I wouldn’t mess with him.

Although he outpolled Douglas in the final ballot, the Democrats had gerrymandered voting districts to retain control of the Illinois legislature. They sent Douglas to the Senate. (Direct election of senators by the people only came in 1913 with the Seventeenth Amendment.) After the race, Lincoln returned to his law practice and continued making speeches for the Republican cause.

That year, an editor wrote to him suggesting he run for president. “I must, in candor, say I do not think myself fit for the Presidency,” he replied.

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November 18, 1863. Two weeks before his address at Gettysburg. He presides over the bloodiest war in American history, the end not yet in sight, and he has to tell the nation why. I cannot conceive the immensity of these burdens.

There’s eternity in this face. How did it get there?

He seemed to have captured all the greater qualities of the great Americans who preceded him, without their defects: the poise of Washington without his aloofness, the astuteness of Jefferson without his indirection, the conscience of J.Q. Adams without his harshness, the forthrightness of Jackson without his ignorance, the magnetism of Clay without his vanity, the lucidity of Webster without his ponderousness; and fused them with a magnanimity peculiarly his own. — Morison and Commager, The Growth of the American Republic.

A year and a half later, he confided to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “I shall not live to see the peace. This war is killing me.”

HEROES

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I confess to an an endless fascination with this man. Embarrassing because this isn’t an age of heroes.

When my son was five, he told a reporter from the school newspaper, “My dada fought in the Civil War.”

When I told James Hillman a few years ago that I was reading Lincoln, he responded, “That was a long time ago.”

So sometimes I feel I’ve retreated into a fantasy of the past. Probably because the problems of the present seem so insurmountable. I’m not just talking about our economic decline, but the circumstance behind it that the Depression has exposed: the hijacking of Congress by monied interests, the train wreck of our republic.

If there were four signal crises in our past–the Revolution, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Great Depression–then this is now the fifth.

Each of those four crises produced a hero–Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts. There is no hero now, none on the horizon. Perhaps, in our age, if remedy is to come, it must come from below.

Lincoln’s greatness was that each day, each punishing day, he became a better man than he’d been the day before. Knowing this gives me courage that perhaps I can be a better man tomorrow.

Perhaps I may yet contribute to making a better world for my son.

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RELATED POST:

On Lincoln

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YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

Lincoln, Life-Size by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr.

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EXPRESS YOURSELF!

How do you feel about this man? Perhaps you recommend another and his/her portraits? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate February 14, 2012 at 11:19 am

Only fools don’t look to history for heroes. There is so much to learn from these great men (and women) who saw with clearer eyes, spoke with deeper truth, battled daily (bloody or not).
May we all be better tomorrow.

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Wolf Pascoe February 14, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Amen, Kate!

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BigLittleWolf February 14, 2012 at 11:32 am

It is extraordinary how much we can see in a face, with the passage of time.

You’re right – this isn’t an age of heroes. And we’re all the worse for that sorrowful reality, aren’t we.
BigLittleWolf recently posted..Kiss Me

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Wolf Pascoe February 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm

As above, so below. But read Jim’s comment.

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Barbara February 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I agree with you about Lincoln… no one expected great things from him but he plodded along and grew in greatness anyway. Maybe that’s what it takes to be a hero, the ability to learn and adjust as you go, to grow in wisdom. And perhaps there aren’t enough people in high places reflecting on history and past heroes. (I have no doubt you’ll make this a better world for your son.)
Barbara recently posted..Snowflakes and other Sweet things

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Wolf Pascoe February 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Well, I can plod anyway.

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Jim Parkevich February 14, 2012 at 4:28 pm

In Lincoln’s time. the “world” only existed in the new America..East to west, north to south….In this age, most Americans never knew of Persia (Iran, Iraq) Russia, the Ottoman Empire, China or Siam…Yeah, We knew of England, France and a few European nations, but that was as far as our real knowledge allowed us to roam. And now we are only seconds away via electronic communication..The world seems suddenly so big and scary…
And we want a hero to lead us, quiet all our fears. I worked in a Childrens Hospital for 7 years…Doctors who could patch a broken heart, literally, and then go out with me and drink a round of beers…My Heroes… Nurses who swaddled sick infants and held them as they took their last breaths…My Heroes
My Cub and Boy Scout Leaders of the 60’s…all WW ll vets, who survived gut wrenching battles..to come home and donate their time to goofy little kids….My Heroes.. Teachers I have worked with, daunting efforts in this day and age that gives so much short shrift to teachers…My heroes.
Lincoln’s heroism, for that age, will transcend history yet to be made in an unknown future. For now, hero’s and heroic action is everywhere…we just need to surmount our own cynicism and fear.

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Wolf Pascoe February 14, 2012 at 7:18 pm

We didn’t know much about the world in the 19th century, but they knew about us. Tolstoy was traveling in Mongolia, I believe, when a man approached him and said, “Tell me about Lincoln.”

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Sirena February 14, 2012 at 7:48 pm

LOVE the photos of Lincoln – I stared at them all for a very long time. What an amazing face he had and those pictures are so real – I feel like I’m looking at the real person today. Great post!

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Wolf Pascoe February 14, 2012 at 8:04 pm

They had faces then.

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Privilege of Parenting February 14, 2012 at 11:07 pm

I grew up in the Land of Lincoln, in Lincolnwood, IL, just off Lincoln Boulevard… so steeped in his legend (attending Todd Hall K-2nd; Rutledge 3rd-5th; Lincoln Hall 6th-8th) that it tended to fade into the miasma little parades and skating at the park. And yet these photos, your post, your yearning for renewal to fairness and greatness that our constitution promises and has yet to fully deliver… makes me join you in this wish for some collective hero of rising consciousness, some healing of the rifts from north and south, red and blue, indian and settler, past and future, some participatory and quiet revolution of the fear-gripped, bellicose and stingy mass-mind in favor of guileless child-mind harnessed to a heart of reason.

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Wolf Pascoe February 14, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Here’s to the guileless child-mind harnessed to a heart of reason!

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pamela February 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm

The difference in the faces astounds me. I learned so much about Lincoln through you – thank you!

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Wolf Pascoe February 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Just Add Father is glad to help.

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Kelly February 20, 2012 at 7:34 pm

The distance and impact of time tells us so much more about Lincoln (and other historical leaders) than the people of his time knew about the man. It makes me wonder: What faces will our descendants hold up to tell the story of our times, now?

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Wolf Pascoe February 21, 2012 at 9:52 pm

When asked where the great poets of our day were, Stanley Kunitz used to say, “The voice is diluted.” I wonder if that’s a characteristic of our time or every time. And if every time, does it mean that greatness is a property of the lens through which we look?

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