I am speaking this weekend at the Lincoln Boyhood National Home in Indiana and it was in that context that when I saw this article on social mobility yesterday, I was reminded of Lincoln’s rise from poverty to being a successful lawyer and, later, president. Most Americans, including, I think, Lincoln himself, have found that upward climb to be inspiring, although a few critics, to be sure, condemned the president on that basis. Here is Lincoln’s former friend, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, in 1873:
We think, on the whole, that Mr. Lincoln was “the right man in the rightplace.” No man fitter than he, indeed, to represent the Northern Demos; or, as Wendell Phillips has it, “the party of the North pledged against the party of the South.” For if, as we believe, that was the cause of brute force, blind passion, fanatical hate, lust of power, and the greed of gain, against the cause of constitutional law and human rights, then who was better fitted to represent it than the talented, but the low, ignorant and vulgar, rail-splitter of Illinois? Or if, as we also believe, it was the cause of infidelity and atheism, and against the principles and the spirit of the Christian religion, then who more worthy to muster its motley hosts, and let them slip with the fury of the pit, than the low-bred infidel of Pigeon Creek, in whose eyes the Savior of the world was “an Illegitimate child,” and the Holy Mother as base as his own.
But I wonder, quite frequently as it happens, if we don’t too often celebrate this one aspect of Lincoln’s character precisely because it is no longer attainable in modern-day America. In celebrating Lincoln as a symbol of equal opportunity, or work, or natural rights (at least as many people, especially conservatives, define it), or as the rightful heir of the founders, might we be unwittingly, as Sheldon Wolin put it, “nudging . . . society toward a different direction where inequalities will be taken for granted, rationalized, perhaps celebrated”?