One of Scott Rasmussen’s recent Number of the Day entries for Ballotpedia deals with the Abraham Lincoln’s current high favorability ratings: 90% of Americans have a favorable view of the Great Emancipator. 88% have a favorable view of our first president, George Washington.
That was certainly not the case when Lincoln was president. He was an unlikely figure when he first took office, and many in his own party—the young Republican Party—doubted his ability to see the United States through the American Civil War.
It’s easy to forget—or even to imagine—that Lincoln believed he would not win re-election in 1864. Thus, he picked Andrew Johnson, a pro-Union, pro-slavery Democrat from Tennessee, as his running mate. (Of course, Lincoln never dreamed his symbolic gesture of political goodwill and unity would lead to an unqualified boor becoming president.) Regardless, the fall of Atlanta and subsequent Union victories boosted Lincoln at the polls, securing his reelection (he was touched to find that soldiers overwhelming supported their Commander-in-Chief).
Blogger SheafferHistorianAZ at Practically Historical posted a piece recently entitled, “Finest Two Minutes,” about Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address. That speech is, indeed, one of the most moving and powerful political speeches in the English language, and it’s less than 300 words.
What caught my eye was this quotation:
The Chicago Times recorded, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
It’s instructive to remember that, while history views Lincoln fondly (SheafferHistorianAZ rates him as a “Great”-level president), he was not universally beloved at his time, and only won in 1860 because the race was split four ways: there were two Democratic candidates (Northern and Southern), the Republican (Lincoln), and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln did not even appear on the ballot in many Southern States. Lincoln had to earn his greatness, and much of it came with posterity.
Similarly, President Reagan was not universally beloved in his own party when he was elected in 1980. The parallels to our current president, Donald Trump, and his own struggles with his adopted party are striking.
The lesson seems to be to aim for greatness, regardless of contemporary naysayers. Few Americans remember George McClellan, but everyone remembers the Great Emancipator.