Partly for fun, partly to make a point, I’m writing this post without referring to any texts, either online or on paper. Which should explain, if not excuse, any paraphrases or errors. The point may or may not become clear by the end of the post. This is not going to be an “FDR is better than Lincoln” post; you have been warned.

We know a great deal about Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, but what we know about Lincoln explains him; what we know about FDR only obscures him further. Superficial as it may sound, there is something meaningful in the contrast between the lean-and-hungry Lincoln’s look as against the well-fed FDR’s features.

Lincoln’s story is familiar: from modest origins, he read law and became a successful attorney for the Illinois Central, among other clients. A less-than-illustrious military career in the Blackhawk war, a background as a thoroughgoing Whig (Henry Clay was his “beau ideal” as a statesman) and a short stint as a Congressman, during which he supported the “spot resolution” challenging President Polk to show on what spot, exactly, the Mexicans had invaded US soil, allegedly providing a pretext for the war.

He had a “lavender” streak, his admiring biographer Carl Sandburg wrote; he had a close relation with Joshua Speed. And his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest, his law partner William Herndon claimed. (Critics later said that in his Cooper Union Young Men’s Lyceum1 address Lincoln warned his contemporaries against ambitious men like himself.) His marriage was not especially happy.

He had no very advanced views on race, though perhaps no very backward views either; there is a much-mulled-over episode in which a traveling Lincoln encounters some slaves on a riverboat and notes their relative cheer – rather than turn this into a homily that African Americans were fit for bondage, as many white people would, he considered it a lesson on human nature, how people can adapt themselves to almost any circumstance. Publicly, of course, he committed himself to white supremacy and sought with evident seriousness to solve the problem of post-emancipation race relations by seeking to colonize American blacks in Africa. He seems always to have believed slavery was wicked, though he never emphasized this as much as one might wish.

He had a sense of humor he liked to inflict on others; his backwoods jokes did not always go over well but as President he did not have to care. A brooding and melancholy man, he loved Shakespeare and in the depths of the war would like Macbeth consider himself stepped in blood so far he might as well go over as go back. He saw clearly he might well die; perhaps he believed he should. He made great use of the English language and wrote his own prose that sometimes, as in the rhyme that climaxed the Second Inaugural (“fondly do we hope” etc.) slid over into poetry.

And the war he did not seek consumed and redefined him as a man of resolve for its duration. He seemed never at ease, yet he acted as if he thought himself never out of place, going even to the front at City Point during the war to see the armies that advanced at his behest. Strong in war, he would surely have been weak in peace. While he could not have been so personally ridiculous as Johnson, he almost certainly would have sought a lighter peace than could have made the white South acknowledge and learn to live with its defeat (“with malice toward none”, you know).

Thus what we know of Lincoln tells us much what we would expect of him – an ambitious man who acted in keeping with his ambition, but guided by at least a modicum of principle: slavery was wicked, and the slave power a representative of wickedness on earth, he became when need demanded it the agent of its destruction. In an earlier or later time, his Whiggish belief that business had the good interests of the American people at heart would have made him a less admirable figure; as it was it put him behind high tariffs and the Union Pacific Railroad, which were among the unbeautiful creations of the Republican Party.

Contrast Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born to a rich and political family in which he was overshadowed, as anyone would be, by his cousin-uncle Theodore, but also a bit by his mother, too. Regarded widely as a nonentity, nicknamed the “Feather Duster” (for his initials and his lack of gravitas), he missed election to TR’s social club Porcellian and did not distinguish himself in the classroom or out. In politics he vaguely followed Woodrow Wilson, whom he sought vaguely to resemble, and stepped into TR’s shoes as assistant secretary of the navy. As a Vice Presidential candidate in 1920 he lost disastrously and there was no indication he was going to be heard from again; he admired Herbert Hoover.

The cliché that hardship made him must partly hold true. Both the polio, and the crisis in his marriage – when he discovered he truly loved a woman who was not his wife, yet was prepared to give her up – turned him inward, pressing him onto an inner strength of some kind. But did the crises make that strength, or just disclose its existence to him? Always private, he became if anything still obscurer and harder to read, more self-reliant.

Even his governorship and 1932 campaign did not quite predict the president he would become – the elements were there, certainly, but so were other, contrary indicators. He became the champion of the poor, more vigorously so as the hard years passed, a frank crusader for the downtrodden. He tried to remake the Democratic Party in 1938 into a truly liberal party by campaigning against its reactionary Southern elements.

That he failed should not blind us to his conviction that he should try, from … principle? I am not sure this is right. He was ruthless when he had to be. And the language of morality was not naturally his. He seemed to regard extremism – fascism, anti-Communism, racism – as in bad taste, more than anything else. Perhaps this is an indication of what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., called his “first-class temperament”, a kind of blithe self-assurance, a devotion to goodness out of unthinking natural behavior. Which is not to say he didn’t blunder into evil; he did, spectacularly, in the case of Japanese-American internment. But guided by his … again, it’s hard to ascribe to him a specific moral lodestar or principled catechism, just a second nature that he consulted and trusted more than any counsellor … guided by that temper, he much more often than not made good decisions.

He seemed to have been sincerely pious (in a way that Lincoln, the author of a book on unbelief, is supposed not to have been) and when he called on God he sounded much as if he were calling on a senior version of himself, a stern and kindly patriarch with His own inscrutable purposes. He could not command the language, but he could mean what he said in a way that inspired and guided his hearers (thinking here of the D-Day prayer, among other remarkable non-oratorical speeches). He had a talent for leadership and inspired loyalty among a variety of lieutenants not predisposed to his politics, which made him a great commander-in-chief with generally good strategic judgment.

And as an architect of peace he is unparalleled. That the postwar world was prosperous, rather than desperate, surely owes in part to the precedents he established for continuing the New Deal into the peace. And the push toward collective security he began during the war continued into the 1940s, with great and good effect. We might have been better off had he lived even a few further months, if only with time to finesse his own deceit in the process of peacemaking, rather than leave his successor to blunder through the complexity he left behind after twelve years in the presidency.

Again, unlike Lincoln, none of this seems predictable even in retrospect, perhaps least of all the mild but undeniable arrogance with which he ran for, and won, the White House four times. He did not seek or give hint of greatness before the years of crisis settled on him.

I am not here trying to rank them, though readers of this blog know well my opinion, both jocular and serious. But by comparing them off the top of my head I am trying to demonstrate to myself something that is not, I think, a product of my own negligence, but a problem inherent to the two men: even with my own greater knowledge of FDR’s life and career, he is not as clear to me as Lincoln, nor perhaps ever can be. And I think that is not because he was smarter than I am (that’s the TR problem), but because he was more thoroughly unknowable.

1Corrected per Corey Robin’s gracious comment.