Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, died 150 years ago Wednesday. His pre-eminence is not just my opinion. Most polls of historians and surveys of popular opinion put Lincoln on top. Looking at the lists this week, I realized what a tragedy it can be to live through a truly great presidency. Our leaders only earn that much respect by overcoming horrendous challenges.
Only Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington can give the sad-eyed and splendid man from Illinois even token competition. Our greatest president oversaw a nation torn asunder by a civil war that cost more than 600,000 lives, the bloodiest conflict in American history. FDR, often rated second, presided over a depression that made 2008 look like a beach party. He also endured the second-bloodiest conflict in our nation's history, during which more than 400,000 Americans died. And Washington, rounding out the top three, first had to defeat the British, and then help invent this nation, before he could lead it.
As I spent time reading about and thinking about Lincoln for this column, my first instinct was to write one of those, "Boy, if you think our politics are divisive now, you never lived through secession, slavery, and a four-year civil war"-type pieces. But what kept cropping up was a broad gratitude to be living in our time, rather than Lincoln's.
If you were to take today's news reports and the mood around the dinner table as indicators, you'd think things were just terrible in America right now. In fact, life is so wonderful in comparison to how things were 150 years ago that our inability to acknowledge that and take joy in it may be one of our greatest failings.
In the span of time, 150 years is nothing. But in that time, nearly everything has changed, almost all for the better.
In 1865, life expectancy for Americans was about 40 years. Now it's nearly 80.
And the joy and comfort available to us in that doubled span has mushroomed. We don't think much about how important air conditioning or central heat are to us until they break. Ditto refrigerators and freezers, electric lights and entertainments, hot running water and Keurigs and iPhones and on and on.
These wonders aren't just shallow luxuries, either. Being very cold is, beyond being miserable, not healthy. Eating only the foods that grow within 20 miles of your home, and only when they're in season, is neither enjoyable nor wise.
And it's not just the very wealthy who have access to these modern, mundane wonders. Conveniences are the norm, and all but the very poorest Americans have them.
We have cheap books and libraries that lend them gratis. We have widespread, free education. In 1865, 2 percent of whites graduated from high school and practically no blacks did. In 2012, 80 percent of all Americans graduated from high school in four years, including 69 percent of blacks.
Today many of us are outraged when a police officer kills a black man unnecessarily, and we should be. But in 1865, such a killing would barely have evoked a shrug among white people. Today many of us are infuriated when politicians try to suppress the minority vote, and we should be. But in 1865, blacks and women had no right to vote.
In the 150 years since our greatest president was assassinated, our nation has become freer, richer, kinder, more comfortable, better educated, better traveled, less racist and less sexist. We are far from perfect, but it seems worthwhile to acknowledge that, led by people like Lincoln, we have come so very far in the right direction.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.