Donaldson Celebrates Lincoln's Contribution

The following is a commentary by ABC News' Sam Donaldson. Click here to view a video version of his latest essay.

Here we are on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, celebrating, properly, his unique contribution to the American nation.

Recently, the Atlantic magazine asked 100 historians to rate presidents. The consensus was that Lincoln was No.1 because he saved the union. Right behind him in second place was George Washington, because without him there might not have been a union in the first place.

That may strike some as a curious juxtaposition -- the man who created something ranked below the man who later saved the creation.

Well, there are two things that explain Lincoln's top standing. First, though it was to him a secondary, tactical move in furtherance of saving the union, Lincoln's freeing of the slaves lifts him, particularly today given President Obama's election, into a special category. We call Lincoln "the Great Emancipator," not the great union saver.

But the second thing is also so important in our feelings about Lincoln, or anyone for that matter -- we think we know him as a human being, thanks to the work of a multitude of historians and filmmakers.

Ask Americans what they know about Washington the human being and they are likely to say he crossed the Delaware River standing in the bow of his boat -- he probably wasn't standing but that's what the famous picture shows -- and that he had a set of wooden false teeth.

But ask them about Lincoln and they may recall he used to dance around the White House with his little son on his shoulders … or say such things as "find out what brand of whiskey he drinks, I want to send a case to my other generals," when told General Grant, who was winning battles, was a drunk.

And his speeches: The second inaugural, "with malice toward none, with charity for all…" Or his Gettysburg Address, a little two-minute gem, perhaps the most moving speech by any American leader on any subject ever.

And of course, that last night at Ford's Theater.

Finally, for many of us, there is "Lincoln the Merciful." He just couldn't stand to let the Army shoot the youngsters who ran away or fell asleep at their posts. He pardoned so many over the protests of his generals.

My favorite is the day a mother in tears pleaded with him to spare her young son, a farm boy she said who was used to going to sleep at sundown and rising at sunup and, therefore, naturally fell asleep at midnight at his post and was to be shot for his offense.

Lincoln wrote on a piece of paper "Do not shoot private X until you hear from me," and told the mother to give this order to the War Department. She wept anew, crying that she hoped not for a delay in the execution but a pardon.

"Mother," replied President Lincoln, "if they don't shoot your son until they hear from me he will live to be older than Methuselah."

Yes, indeed, Abraham Lincoln, No. 1.

Sam Donaldson, a 41-year ABC News veteran, served two appointments as chief White House correspondent for ABC News, from 1977-1989 and from January 1998 to August 1999, covering Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton. Donaldson also co-anchored, with Diane Sawyer, "PrimeTime Live," from August 1989 until it merged with "20/20" in 1999. He co-anchored the ABC News Sunday morning broadcast, "This Week With Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts," from December 1996 to September 2002. Currently, Donaldson appears on ABC News Now, the ABC News digital network, in a daily show called "Politics Live."