To say that his greatness was complicated is something of an understatement. Historians seem to have sometimes had trouble deciding whether he was conservative or a radical, a white supremacist or a man ahead of his time. These days the consensus seems to lean toward the latter, to say the least.
Frederick Douglass wrestled with this question on a speech he gave at the unfurling of the Freedman's monument to Lincoln, located in Lincoln Park in DC, right on east capitol street. As the title of this post indicates, I think it's the best statement on Lincoln I've ever heard.
Here is some of the meat of Douglass's speech on Lincoln; forgive the long excerpt, it would feel disrespectful to both men and to the beauty of the text to interrupt its flow any more.
...Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men...(Many brilliant sentences intervene - WAK)
Read the Whole Thing.
I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
That last sentence cuts to the heart. It could be Lincoln's epitaph -- he was not perfect, he was not even, absolutely, always good. But in his own time and circumstances he was the best, perhaps better, than anyone could have hoped for.
More broadly, this: "measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined." hints at one of the geniuses of representative government -- that occasionally the People can choose as their representatives men and women who are better than they are. And I think we lose sight of that in our talk of returning power to the people, that often the people are the problem, and it takes a Pericles or a Lincoln to stave off the worst of human nature and achieve something good, constrained as they are as representatives of a flawed people. This does not mean steamrolling the popular will, but sidestepping or channeling it when necessary, as Lincoln did when he made the transformation of the Union war into an Abolition war official (not that the distinction was ever that clear).
Moreover, I worry that all this talk of opinion polls and the 24 hour news cycle conceals a deep problem with our republic -- that in this age of responsive politicians and gallup polling, our leaders may have lost the ability to do something that is both unpopular and right. Lincoln was, as Douglass said, mightily constrained by the prejudices of the people, but he did not labor under the presumption that he should at all times do what the people want, and did not suffer from instant polling that made it apparent what the people wanted.
In some of the darkest days of 1864, when it looked as though neither Atlanta nor Richmond would ever fall and that the Presidential election (and the war) would be lost, Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House to make a desperate plea: to get as many slaves out of the South as possible before the war ended in a negotiate peace. Did Lincoln consult a pollster before he did this? Did he worry that it might cost him Irish votes, or votes in central Indiana? Did he consult the people at all? No. Could a politician that worried about any of these things have done the same thing?
Democracy is not always the greatest good.