What Does Lincoln Have in Common with Comic Book Heroes?

tags: Abraham Lincoln

Michael McLean is a PhD History Student at Boston College.

Illustration by Robin Lindley

When you ask Americans to rank the best presidents, the top three are usually a combination of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This should be of little surprise. Each man faced one of the nation’s worst crises when the survival of the United States was under threat. Washington led colonies through the American Revolution, then set critical precedents as president that allowed for peaceful transfers of power. Lincoln kept the United States from disintegrating during the Civil War. And FDR led the United States through the Great Depression and most of World War II. Yet Abraham Lincoln stands on a separate level in the minds of most Americans. He is, almost without dispute, the greatest of the greats. Why? He certainly restructured American life, but so did FDR. There is an American mythology built around him, but the same can be said for Washington. So why this elevation to an even higher status?

Well, I believe that the answer lays in a simple comic-book principle. If you think of the greatest comic book heroes, you probably think of Batman and Superman. Though he’s less notable, I’ll add Professor Xavier from X-Men.

These superheroes, on their own merits, are not inherently interesting. Batman is a rich guy who knows martial arts. Superman is essentially an invincible god, hardly material for dramatic storytelling. And Professor Xavier is an old man in a wheel chair who can control human minds. What makes them great are their arch-enemies. Batman has the Joker, Superman has Lex Luther, and Xavier has Magneto. And in each case, the villains are essentially the same as the heroes, but opposite in one specific way. Like Batman, the Joker sees that society is broken and corrupt, and so the Joker works outside the bounds of the law. The difference is that Batman believes that humanity still has something good within it, a dynamic that stops Batman from killing but leads the Joker to kill without mercy. Like Superman, Lex Luther is endowed with superior traits. He has a genius-level intellect, and sees that he can use this power to rule over his fellow-man. Superman certainly has similar thoughts, but he chooses to use his superiority to help mankind rather than exploit it.

And normal humans perceive both Xavier and Magneto to be tremendous threats. Both are the most powerful mutants in the world, and both realize that mutants will have a very difficult time coexisting with non-mutants. Xavier believes that they can live side-by-side and puts his faith in mankind, but Magneto, whose parents were killed in a Nazi death camp, has seen a different side of humanity. The close friends subsequently disagree and even battle over their competing ideologies, one of peaceful coexistence and one of fear and domination.

The external struggle between comic book heroes and villains is really an internal struggle within us all. The same traits and circumstances that make a great man are the same traits that can turn a man towards evil.

This brings me back to Lincoln. Lincoln not only faced the greatest villains, but often had a great deal in common with those villains. The anti-Lincoln, if you will, was Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, the rebellious organization that sought to destroy the United States government to ensure the survival of human enslavement. The rival presidents were born seven months apart, and both were born in Kentucky. Both of their fathers saw fit to leave Kentucky for greater opportunity. Lincoln’s family moved to the Northwest, eventually reaching Illinois, a land that promised opportunity for farmers and families willing to work the land.

Yet Jefferson Davis’s family charted a different course, moving to Mississippi, where a new cash crop called cotton showed great promise. Combined with massive land thefts from the region’s native peoples, cotton was so profitable that it reinvigorated the internal slave trade and transformed the Deep South into a slave society.

Both Davis and Lincoln were driven, brilliant men. Both found a home working for the government in their states and in Washington, and both men developed sweeping visions for how human society ought to function. Davis helped to develop the idea that society worked best when wealthy white men controlled all of society and made decisions for everyone. This society would also need a permanent underclass of people who could never rise above menial labor and never make decisions for themselves, the mudsills upon which men like Davis could build a strong house. Davis’s Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, articulated the philosophy early in the Confederacy with his Cornerstone Speech. In the speech, Stephens argued that their entire rebellion was about slavery, as without slavery, their society would cease to exist. He also argued that the founders of the United States had made a terrible error in claiming that men were created equal, and that the Confederacy sought to correct the mistake.

Lincoln had a different vision. Growing up in the free state of Illinois, he realized that society would function best if everyone had a chance to rise and make it on their own. That way, the very best would lead, rather than just those lucky enough to be born into a good position. This would require public education, open lands, a free market, infrastructure, a strong central government, and the end of slavery. It led him, eventually, to the Gettysburg Address, in which he argued that the United States was indeed “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

In the course of the Civil War, Davis and his team fought hard to preserve their slave society. The war was the deadliest in American history. Even when defeat seemed clear to most, when women in the South rioted for bread, Confederate soldiers deserted, Southern cities were set aflame, and enslaved men and women fled to Union lines by the thousands, Davis refused to surrender, as he refused to accept that slavery—and his vision for mankind—was about to come to an end. Yet he could not hold out. Lincoln, backed a powerful military that included several hundred-thousand African-American soldiers, defeated the Confederacy and oversaw the emancipation of four million people, the largest single emancipation in human history.

Lincoln was great, in part, because he faced the greatest villains. Had they had their way, humans would still enslave each other by the millions. Yet Lincoln’s villains were also great men, men of vision, not unlike Lincoln himself. They simply took that energy and vision in a much darker, crueler direction. With a few small changes to his life, Lincoln easily could have done the same. That he did not, that the best instincts of Americans defeated the worst, at least for a moment, is what makes him so great.   

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