The recent release of Steven Spielberg's biopic "Lincoln" has once again brought the 16th president back onto center stage of American society. And it is reviving the debate about who Lincoln truly was and the worthiness of the reverence with which he is imbued.
Lincoln is almost universally seen as a great man who fought the Civil War to free the slaves whom he loved. He is remembered as a benevolent leader who flawlessly led in pursuit of his deep conviction in the equality of all people. He was perfect. Heck, I even named one of my children after him.
Of course, none of this is completely true (except my son's name). In truth, Lincoln was deeply conflicted and flawed. He did not believe in the equality of the races. He did not prosecute the Civil War to free the slaves. He fought it to save the union and preserve the American promise.
He did not sign the Emancipation Proclamation to grant freedom to black people. It was more about war strategy than compassion. He doubted that the races could ultimately coexist and rather thought the best solution was to export all black people to a new colony. These are facts about Lincoln that hardly square with his popular image.
But indeed he was great, not as a simplistic caricature, but rather because of his profound human complexity. Perhaps more than any American in history he understood the criticality of the American promise and the risk it could collapse under the strain of human failings. Hence, at Gettysburg, his message was unmistakable: The endurance of the American promise depends on each of us, in our time, with all of our flaws, to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and continue the unfinished work of perfecting our union.
My uniquely American son Lincoln owes all he has to his black, white, Asian and Indian ancestors, their struggle, and the struggle of those who forged a country where his very existence is not just possible, but celebrated. He, like all of us, will do well to understand that his opportunities come with a responsibility to make his own contribution to a society where the opportunities of those who succeed him will be greater still. By heeding that call, he will do great honor to his family and his fittingly revered namesake. No pressure, kid.
Kish Rajan is an outgoing Walnut Creek City Council member and director of the governor's Office of Business and Economic Development.