An interesting tidbit in the New Yorker profile of William Seward — Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State and wheeler-dealer — on the lengths Lincoln went to in securing re-election:
“Nineteenth-century elections were played by rough rules,” Stahr writes laconically, and Seward knew exactly how to exploit them. After the New York Draft Riots, in 1863, and a string of defeats by Union troops, many people in the North began agitating for peace. As the election of 1864 approached, even loyal Republicans considered calling for a convention to nominate another candidate. That August, Weed went to the White House to tell Seward and Lincoln that the election was lost. Seward disagreed, and deployed Weed, the consummate party boss, to activate what Gideon Welles aptly described as the “vicious New York school of politics.” Welles’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy was enlisted to tell workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that if they didn’t vote for Lincoln they would lose their jobs. Lincoln did his part, too, appointing “a few Seward-Weed men to key posts in New York City.” Welles, meanwhile, scribbled in his diary about the “miserable intrigues of Weed and Seward.” Outmaneuvered by his nemesis and undercut by a subordinate, Welles wrote after the results came in, “Seward was quite exultant—feels strong and self-gratified. Says this Administration is wise, energetic, faithful, and able beyond any of its predecessors."
Doesn't exactly fit the narrative does it? Lincoln has long-since been enshrined in the secular pantheon, and when that happens, one's more brutal moves get glossed over.
That's unfortunate, because the reality is more revealing. It's not that Lincoln's positive traits are a lie, it's that they co-exist with others. This is, after all, the man who prosecuted an extremely bloody war, suspended habeas corpus, and kept a lock on his own party through constant manipulation of his rivals.
But the above shines even more light on Lincoln's ruthless streak. When you believe, with good reason, that your opponents will lose a war and ruin the nation, who gives a shit about threatening some dock workers and handing out bribes?
This is the reality of power: even when used for noble ends, it's never pretty. Those who do it well, like Lincoln, had some lines they wouldn't cross (he adamantly refused to suspend the election) but didn't stint from doing damn near anything else to get victory.
If you need another example, remember that the civil rights movement guarded its leaders' homes with machine guns and used fear tactics to keep the troops in line. Pretty? No. Justified? Absolutely.
That's why our tendency to turn people like Lincoln (or Anthony, Gandhi, King the list goes on...) into secular saints is such a damagingly dumb thing to do. It obscures the reality of how positive change happens — with all the ruthlessness sometimes required — and replaces it with a narrative where heroic figures prevail through personal purity.
Then, when someone looks to these past successes for inspiration, they miss the reality and go straight for the myth, which doesn't work. When they assess their own politicians, they hold them accountable to a fiction. And when they try to actually win a battle, they get their ass kicked.
So please, whatever your cause, let's not have saints. This is not the place for them.