Lincoln the Tragic Hero
“[Lincoln’s] favorite play was Macbeth. He had read it often, he wrote to the actor James Hackett, “perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader . . . I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.” He had seen Booth in that role too.
Lincoln’s fascination with this play is itself interesting. He knew that much of the country saw him as a Macbeth – a tyrant, a usurper, a murderer, and his conscience may have promoted him to ask whether he could reasonably be seen in that light. He had expected a quick end to the “rebellion,” but the war had dragged on for years, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.
Many Northerners clamored for a peace settlement. If the war was not justified, Lincoln had much to answer for, infinitely more than he could have imagined at the beginning.
Apart from the scale of violence against the South, including its civilian population and their property, Lincoln aroused angry opposition in the North. “Saving the Union” had required him to transgress against the Constitution and civil liberties; he acted as a dictator, assuming both legislative and executive powers.
An Illinois newspaper accused him of “seeking to inaugurate a reign of terror in the loyal States by military arrests . . . of citizens without a trial, to browbeat all opposition by villainous and false charges of disloyalty against whole classes of patriotic citizens, to destroy all constitutional guarantees of free speech, a free press, and the writ of habeas corpus.”
His biographer David Donald notes: “Editors feared that they might be locked up in Fort Lafayette or in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington if they voiced their criticisms too freely, and even writers of private letters began to guard their language.”
As the ghastly war continued inconclusively, Lincoln must have pondered Macbeth’s words:
“I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far, that should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as go o’er”
In scale of character, in eloquence, and in impact on his country, Lincoln had the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragic hero. Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that tragic action must have “magnitude”; and Lincoln’s action certainly had that quality. He also displayed the tragic flaw of rash judgment; despite his deliberation, he had ignored the advice of his cabinet by launching war over Fort Sumter, failing to foresee the madly disproportionate violence that would ensue from a legalistic dispute over secession.
The tragic hero is neither saint, villain, nor passive victim: he is the cause of his own and his society’s ruin, in spite of his own intention. As Aristotle says, the ruin of a purely innocent man is not tragic, it is injustice. That of a purely evil man is not tragedy, but justice.
Lincoln was driven to meditate on the events he had set in motion. By the fall of 1862 he was reflecting: “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” In 1864 he wrote: “I claim not to have controlled events, but plainly confess that events have controlled me.”
Was he trying to disclaim responsibility? He always insisted that the South “began” the war, which, even if true, would not necessarily mean that the South bore the guilt for what the war became. Perhaps sensing this, he referred the problem to Providence, which had allowed the war to continue and spread.”
(America’s Tragic Hero, Joseph Sobran, Sobran’s Real News of the Month, March 2001, Volume 8, Number 3, excerpts pp. 4-5)