As Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" seizes the nation's attention in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and emancipation, we justly celebrate Abraham Lincoln's character, ideals and virtues. It's tempting to imagine that the halting and hard-won evolution of Lincoln's ideas and strategies on black freedom — the centerpiece of the new film — marked the moral growth of white America during the Civil War. But that story, implicit and explicit in many portrayals of Lincoln, embodied in our monuments to him and inscribed in our favorite quotations, actually underestimates Lincoln's greatest accomplishment: being better than the nation he led.
Lincoln faced desperate challenges from the moment he took office until the day he was killed. While Union armies in the field struggled for four years against dismayingly effective Confederate forces, Lincoln fought to keep the North from breaking apart. The task proved unrelenting. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans pressed Lincoln to act more boldly against slavery while many Democrats swore, start to finish, that they wouldn't fight a war on behalf of black Americans.
Lincoln never could be confident that the gains he won would long endure — or would even endure through the next election. Despite his eloquence and skill, and despite the Union's growing success on the battlefield, white public opinion in the North refused to consolidate behind Lincoln's leadership on the key issue of black Americans and their future. He barely was renominated by his own party in 1864, even following the triumphs of Gettysburg and Atlanta, and then won the same percentage of white Northern men's votes as he had in 1860. A wary egalitarianism among some Republicans early in the war grew into genuine respect for black Americans, especially black soldiers, but in turn Democrats developed ever more contemptuous and systematic rhetoric against black people. The war divided the white North ever deeper even as black freedom grew closer, compromising Reconstruction before it ever began.
As much as we'd like to imagine that the eloquent words from the Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural addresses spoke for a white North made greater and more self-aware through the sacrifices of the Civil War, those words don't seem to have penetrated very deeply into the consciousness of those not already inclined to agree with them. Lincoln's great speeches, when not ignored, were ridiculed and dismissed by his many enemies. His words gained their resonance in decades and generations that followed, when the nation told the story of the Civil War back to itself, trying to make the shattering experience coherent and whole.
None of this diminishes Abraham Lincoln. He grew morally over the course of the war and he shared that growing understanding in ever more eloquent words. Lincoln's most important triumph lay, however, in leading the nation to a place many did not choose to go. His leadership lay in capturing what he could from each moment of possibility, of avoiding the worst in each moment of disaster. His leadership lay in doing less than many wanted, later than many wanted, in less dramatic ways than many wanted. He worked at the very edge of public opinion, repeatedly testing its boundaries and its strength.
In the end, Lincoln led his nation through an unimaginably costly war to a redemptive outcome, ending the largest system of slavery in the modern world, even though many of his fellow white Americans resisted him every step of the way. That fact should make us even more grateful for the brave eloquence of Lincoln and for a film that dares to evoke his profound loneliness.
Historian and Civil War scholar Edward L. Ayers is president of the University of Richmond.