Interestingly, had the average Union citizen been asked the same question in the spring of 1863, there can be no doubt but that Lincoln would have fared poorly. Not much more could have been said for him even a year later, when Lincoln thought that he would lose his bid for reelection. It would take Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and his own death a week later to propel Lincoln into the pantheon of presidential greatness.
And Lincoln's canonization began almost immediately. Within days of his death, his life was being compared to Jesus Christ. Lincoln was portrayed to a worshipping public as a self-made man, the liberator of the slaves, and the savior of the Union who had given his life so that others could be free. President Lincoln became Father Abraham, a near mythological hero, "lawgiver" to African Americans, and a "Masterpiece of God" sent to save the Union. His humor was presented as an example of his humanity; his numerous pardons demonstrated his "great soul"; and his sorrowful demeanor reflected the burdens of his lonely journey as the leader of a "blundering and sinful" people.
Historians, mindful of Lincoln's mythic place in American popular culture, accord him similar praise for what he accomplished and for how he did it. Because he was committed to preserving the Union and thus vindicating democracy no matter what the consequences to himself, the Union was indeed saved. Because he understood that ending slavery required patience, careful timing, shrewd calculations, and an iron resolve, slavery was indeed killed. Lincoln managed in the process of saving the Union and killing slavery to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him. Because he understood that victory in both great causes depended upon purposeful and visionary presidential leadership as well as the exercise of politically acceptable means, he left as his legacy a United States that was both whole and free.
As the most activist President in history, Lincoln transformed the President's role as commander in chief and as chief executive into a powerful new position, making the President supreme over both Congress and the courts. His activism began almost immediately with Fort Sumter when he called out state militias, expanded the army and navy, spent $2 million without congressional appropriation, blockaded southern ports, closed post offices to treasonable correspondences, suspended the writ of habeas corpus in several locations, ordered the arrest and military detention of suspected traitors, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863.
To do all of these things, Lincoln broke an assortment of laws and ignored one constitutional provision after another. He made war without a…