"To me, Lincoln is so many things," said Dr. Robert Watson in an exploration of Lincoln's legacy. "Abolitionist, politician extraordinaire, poet and orator." But funny man too? Yes, said Watson. "Lincoln was as funny as Will Rogers."
In the final lecture of a series presented at the main Broward County library in Fort Lauderdale, Watson made the case for Lincoln "being one of the greatest leaders the world has ever had. Lincoln fulfilled the promise of the Declaration of Independence." Whenever he was challenged on the constitutionality of his actions, he "transcended the Constitution" and went directly to the Declaration.
Although he has been ranked as America's finest president in most polls of historians (the first being held in 1948), Watson said that he was "arguably the least qualified person ever to become President." His predecessor, Buchanan, was one of the most qualified, but is usually rated as the worst of the presidents.
Watson focused on the Gettysburg Address (only two minutes long) and Lincoln's Second Inaugural as two of his greatest speeches. In the first he "reframed the entire Civil War as a new birth of freedom." And in the second inaugural, "he recast the war as a call for national reconciliation. He called for forgiveness."
This is in sharp contrast to the situation the country faces today. "The uncivility today is worse than at any time since 1860," said Watson. "Why? We are a great people, irrepressible with a can-do attitude. But we are also overly excitable. We shoot first and ask questions later."
Watson identified three factors that spur regrettable actions in America: economic downturn, national security threat and dramatic, rapid social change. The nation is now facing all three at once. "The world is changing at a hyper pace. It's a perfect storm."
"Abraham Lincoln would be shocked and saddened. There is no way he would appreciate or condone the politics we have today." Lincoln's steady calm and refined sense of humor are sorely lacking now. "Lincoln is more relevant today than any time in history."
Thanks to Barbara Miller for organizing this series of Lincoln and Civil War lectures at the main Broward County library.
This is the sixth in a series of feature articles by Clifford Cunningham about Lincoln and the Civil War.