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Monday, February 18, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Jerry Large
Lincoln still sets the bar for presidents

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

Many presidents deserve to be remembered, but none more than Abraham Lincoln, who remains worth study.

Lincoln was always learning and adapting, but not in a willy-nilly way; he seemed always to be trying to pick his way toward the best solution to whatever problem he faced.

He’s not a bad example for a modern leader to follow. If he’d been too rigid, we’d likely be living in quite a different country. Of course he was also hardheaded and sometimes manipulative in the service of his goals. He was a finely balanced mix of traits, which is what made him effective then and fascinating now.

Our 16th president is all over the place lately, in books, movies and articles, partly because of the many 150-year milestones associated with his presidency. But he’s always had a special place in the story of our country as the person who preserved the Union.

We’re living through a particularly difficult period for the country, just coming out of a recession and two wars and in the midst of intense political conflict. President Obama, faced with tough problems and stiff opposition, surely asks himself from time to time, what would Lincoln do? He’s such a fan that he used Lincoln’s Bible in his two inaugurations.

What I like to think Lincoln would do is figure out what would make the most sense today with an eye on its effect tomorrow, weighing what he believes is right against what is practical. He was that kind of guy.

I saw the movie, not the vampire-killer version, the one titled simply “Lincoln.” And I’ve been reading Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” which I’d recommend to anyone who wants to understand the man and the country better.

Lincoln never cared for slavery, but he thought abolitionists went too far. He generally avoided the issue early in his career, and when he did come to address it, he suggested gradually freeing enslaved people, compensating their former masters, and sending the formerly enslaved to Africa. He believed, at least early in his political career, that because of slavery there would never come a time when black and white people could live as equal citizens.

But then there was this ending to a speech during his first presidential campaign:

“So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. ... Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man — this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. ... Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”

His thinking on the subject was not a linear progression toward equality. His thoughts were subject to change, but when his valet, who was black, died in 1864, Lincoln arranged for him to be buried at Arlington Cemetery and chose the inscription, “William H. Johnson Citizen.”

No one can know what Lincoln would do today, but I could imagine a modern leader with his characteristics arriving at a belief in complete equality for same-sex couples.

I could imagine such a person challenging those who say the Constitution allows unregulated access to guns of all kinds. After all, Lincoln was accused of violating the Constitution by opposing the ownership of human beings.

He was an agent of change when change was needed. He was hated for it by many, but admired by many more. And he is worth learning from still.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday.

Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

Twitter @jerrylarge

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