What did Abraham Lincoln say about criticism?
sueddeutsche.de: Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago - a US president to whom his current successor refers constantly. Why is Barack Obama doing this?
Jörg Nagler: Because he admires Lincoln in some ways and sees him as a kind of role model. He is fascinated by Lincoln's rise out of poverty, his moral steadfastness and ability to resolve conflicts, his rhetoric and professionalism, his enormous energy, but above all his deep humanity, which he has always retained as president.
Of course, he admires the politician, but what matters most to him is the man and not the icon. Lincoln ultimately became an icon through his murder. His death on Good Friday made him a myth. As with all myths, however, a good part of the historical person disappears behind it.
Lincoln went down in American history as a masterpiece from which all US politicians draw, especially the presidents and, interestingly, especially the Democrats among them. Obama doesn't care that Lincoln was a Republican, which incidentally was the more progressive party back then. His aim is to convey Lincoln as a Civil War president who gave the nation a deeper meaning and reunited it.
sueddeutsche.de: How important was Lincoln in US history?
Nailer: According to polls and historians, he is considered the greatest president. Perhaps also because he is "entranced". It was crucial to US history because it overcame its deepest crisis, preserved the unity of the country, and abolished slavery.
Significantly, he is enthroned in his memorial above the National Mall: Lincoln has become a civil religious figure to whom one looks up, at whose statue one says a small prayer. Obama keeps telling how he stopped at Lincoln's "temple" while jogging in the morning. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt have also used Lincoln over and over again. Roosevelt referred to him when he demanded more power for himself for his New Deal - in times of crisis his "predecessor" did the same.
sueddeutsche.de: Lincoln bundled an almost dictatorial power with reference to the civil war and sometimes let the military operate ruthlessly - like George W. Bush later.
Nailer: There may be agreement on this point, but that is where the similarities end. Bush wanted to create continuity when he announced the end of the Iraq war on the deck of the aircraft carrier "Abraham Lincoln", but of course that alone is not enough. You have to be charismatic and credible.
sueddeutsche.de: Some historians accuse Lincoln of having only been interested in power.
Nailer: That's not true.
"A real ethic of responsibility"
Nailer: The great thing about Lincoln is that as a person of the 19th century he shows signs of weakness and also stands by it. On the other hand, he was incredibly pragmatic and he was a real ethic of responsibility.
Lincoln was not corrupted by power - he did not derive personal advantage from it, nor did he create dictatorial structures. One must not forget: the civil war was brutal and yet the Union remained a functioning democracy.
sueddeutsche.de: During his lifetime, Lincoln was considered highly controversial.
Nailer: Lincoln constantly had to justify himself to Congress and, as a man in the middle, was constantly attacked by conservatives as well as abolitionists. He had to lead coalitions and harmonize wings. And yet 80 percent of the soldiers at the front voted for him when he was re-elected.
sueddeutsche.de: The longer Lincoln was president and the war raged, the deeper depression and doubt weighed on him. Did he have any thoughts of getting out?
Nailer: No. But in August 1864 he was in the darkest time of his life and drafted a so-called "blind memorandum" in which he wanted to inform his cabinet that he no longer believed in his re-election and that if his rival wins the election, he will try to to save the Union together with him before he took office, as this would no longer be possible afterwards.
This document was never given to the ministers and was never opened, but we have it before us. In these dark hours he brooded over religious matters, providence, God's will. He stated that the course of the war and God's plans could not be seen through rational considerations.
God apparently wants the war to go on. He suggested that God wanted to punish America for the sin of slavery. He did not see the sole culprit in the south, according to the motto: God is on our side; he doubted.
sueddeutsche.de: Why is this brooding side of Lincoln little emphasized today?
Nailer: Americans would probably not like to see it as much as Lincoln often doubted. He was also rather skeptical of close confessional ties, and his wife repeatedly persuaded him to go to church. Lincoln's image of God was strong but not fixed, he did not want to publicly commit to his faith and never made any clear statements about it.
"Lincoln was incredibly ambitious"
sueddeutsche.de: Confession of Christianity is now a must for every presidential candidate.
Nailer: As vague as he was about it, Lincoln would probably not be elected today.
sueddeutsche.de: In the meantime, Lincoln has served as a godfather for all kinds of US groups, including religious fundamentalists.
Nailer: If you do research on the Internet, you will find numerous quotes that are being pushed under Lincoln, sentences that he never said. The evangelicals like to refer to him. As far as I know, he only used the word "Jesus" once, and that in a different context. Ironically, Lincoln is associated with Jesus through his martyrdom on Good Friday.
sueddeutsche.de: Lincoln was born into a poor religious family. Abraham Lincoln's vita is the American dream. Why was he so little proud of it?
Nailer: He had a very difficult childhood full of suffering and hardship on the border of the settlement. He absolutely wanted to outgrow this harsh world in poverty and without education ...
sueddeutsche.de: ... what he achieved through enormous diligence and extreme reading consumption.
Nailer: This ascent was a guarantee for him to finally be able to say goodbye to the hard country life on the prairie. He had been forced to do heavy physical labor for twenty years and then avoided it wherever he could; he saw his talents elsewhere. That is also not welcomed today because it does not fit the catchy image of the self-made man.
sueddeutsche.de: Nonetheless, he occasionally flirted with the image of the self-taught person who rose out of nowhere.
Nailer: Although he wasn't too keen to acknowledge his roots, he used them skillfully: an instrumentalization because the image of the clearing farmer can evoke great emotions.
sueddeutsche.de: All that to rise to the top, to power?
Nailer: Lincoln was incredibly ambitious. Early on, he confided in a friend that he wanted to leave a trace - with all his might. But under no circumstances did he want to abuse her. Rather, he always reflected on the dark side of the mighty.
As early as 1838 he asked himself: What actually happens to the dictators of the world? For him, Napoleon was the negative example. Lincoln then warned that through a lack of education, Americans could develop into a people where mob violence reigns. In addition, he was afraid that the nation would drift apart, which then happened later.
sueddeutsche.de: The slavery issue divided America. Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, but still did not want full equality or integration for Afro-Americans.
Nailer: That was true for most of his life, but is often suppressed today. Towards the end of his life he then changed his mind. Curiously, the figure of Lincoln as the "savior of the nation" took a back seat after the Second World War and he was then primarily seen as a "great emancipator".
sueddeutsche.de: Lincoln is known as "honest Abe", "as honest Abraham". How did he get that nickname?
Nailer: He got it as a lawyer in Springfield. People quickly realized: Here is someone who means it honestly and is absolutely honest. Lincoln was also able to use tricks and cultivated his reputation as "honest Abe".
Incidentally, he never called himself that, he left that to others. He was a skilled pragmatist and a perfect networker and also cultivated the image as a somewhat inexperienced prairie lawyer. In this way he lured intellectuals from the reserve who thought they had an easy time of it - and then Lincoln beat them with his razor-sharp mind and his eloquence.
"He was completely exhausted"
sueddeutsche.de: Does that also apply to the deep depression during his presidency?
Nailer: He could handle it too. The depression made him get up every morning with the credo: I will manage this day too. The willpower behind it was in his nature, it made his ascent possible; and the war has made him grow beyond himself. Lincoln himself once said: He who couldn't even shoot a chicken is now going to be president - and lives thousands of deaths every day.
sueddeutsche.de: Did Lincoln also intervene directly in the American Civil War?
Nailer: Yes, for example in 1864. At that time he drove to the front with two generals near Richmond and there commanded an action that led to the capture of a town on the James River. He was also well informed about every move.
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