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Schulten studies Lincoln’s influence on current president

Susan Schulten

DU history Professor Susan Schulten is a member of Colorado's Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Over 16,000 books have been written about the man, more than anyone except Jesus and Shakespeare. And this year, which marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, dozens of new volumes will be eagerly read by scholars and schoolchildren alike.

Why does Abraham Lincoln continue to fascinate us?

“There is something in his life for everyone,” explains DU history Professor Susan Schulten. “From his humble beginnings and the drive to improve himself to his complex understanding of the nation’s plight and, of course, his tremendous capacity for leadership and compassion. It’s remarkable to think he is both a heroic figure to Americans as well as someone we consider sympathetic and relevant.”

Schulten, a member of Colorado’s Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, says every generation seeks to “get right with Lincoln.”

“People want to make sense of his legacy for their own lives and particular problems,” she says. “Scholarship around Lincoln is often a reflection of our own contemporary concerns rather than a timeless biography we continually enlarge. Recently, Americans have been more interested in his psychological health and his personal relationships.”

The commission’s purpose is to promote understanding and appreciation of Lincoln’s impact on the U.S. and how he shaped the destiny of Colorado and the West.

“The more you know about Lincoln, the more complex a man you find,” Schulten says. “He becomes less a distant icon—someone carved in stone—and more of a man faced with impossible choices. He has come to represent our larger struggle to make sense of the nation and its meaning.”

Schulten believes Lincoln’s greatest contribution to American political thought was linking the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the more pragmatic aspects of the Constitution.

“Prior to the Civil War, Americans considered the Declaration a largely symbolic document,” she says. “It was, after all, just that—a declaration that began our separation from Great Britain.

“The Constitution, on the other hand, was the authoritative document that grounded the Union, yet it contained little in the way of values. For example, the word ‘equality’ doesn’t appear in the Constitution.

“As Lincoln struggled to plead his case against slavery, he used the Declaration to show that equality contradicts the notion of slavery. He reconciled these two documents and by appealing to law, morality and reason, shifted our nation’s course. Two hundred years later, we live in the world that Lincoln wrought.”

Schulten says the most contentious debate about Lincoln continues to be his role in freeing the slaves.

“Some people are shocked when they discover he was really a pragmatist when it comes to emancipation, especially those who want to see him as this heroic figure who does this for moral reasons,” she says. Lincoln imposed emancipation as a military measure, Schulten says, and for a time he even advocated returning black Americans to Africa.

“Thus, the title ‘Great Emancipator’ does little justice to the complex process by which slavery ended in this country,” says Schulten, who has written about how Lincoln has influenced our current president.

“Barack Obama understands Lincoln’s depth, his complexity, his nuanced thought and especially the dilemmas he faced,” she says. “What encourages me most is to see our new president so clear-eyed about Lincoln’s importance. He doesn’t shy away from discussing Lincoln’s limitations, especially his pragmatic approach to the problems of race and slavery.

“Yet Obama also recognizes the enormous role Lincoln played, not just as a pragmatic politician, but as a strategic thinker who changed our country’s understanding of the Constitution.”

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