Background music does not swell and trumpets do not sound

According to Wilfred W. McClay

When standing before the Lincoln Memorial, we should remember the depth and breadth of Lincoln’s unpopularity during his entire time in office. Few great leaders have been more comprehensively disdained or loathed—or underestimated. The low Southern view of him, of course, was to be expected, but it was widely shared north of the Mason-Dixon line. As David Donald put it, Lincoln’s own associates thought him “a simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker”; he was, in the view of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, a “huckster in politics,” and “a first-rate second-rate man.” When he delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the great speeches of human history, he was completely overshadowed by the two-hour-long speech of famed orator Edward Everett that preceded his. There was little or no applause for him as he concluded his two-minute speech and sat down.  

We need to remember that this is often how history happens. Background music does not swell at the crucial moment, and trumpets do not sound, when the events of history are actually taking place. The orator or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will judge him harshly. Few great men have felt this burden more completely than Lincoln.

We also need to remember how likely it seemed to Lincoln and others that he would lose the 1864 election, and thereby experience ignominious defeat and see the disintegration of the Union cause as he had fought for it. Had it not been for the miracle of Sherman’s and Grant’s decisive victories in the field, such a defeat at the polls would have been likely, as the American people had grown weary of this frustrating struggle. Add to this bleak outlook the weight of Lincoln’s relentlessly self-examining and depressive temperament and his constant, lonely struggles with a crippling sense of failure, and the sheer resiliency of the man becomes awe-inspiring, in ways a marble temple could never convey.

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