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Posted on Fri, Jan 11, 2013 : 10:40 a.m.

Emancipation: Is Lincoln a force for harmony today?

By Wayne Baker

0110 Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln movie poster.jpg
Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Spielberg’s biopic "Lincoln" just garnered 12 nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, taking the top spot. The nominated categories include Best Picture and Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the 16th president.

My question: To what extent do these nominations reflect great film making versus Lincoln himself? Could Lincoln represent a force for political harmony today?

This month is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This week, we marked this watershed by describing Lincoln’s signing and asking how optimistic you are in 2013, discussing how the Proclamation was only the first step in a still-incomplete journey to freedom, how Lincoln’s chronic melancholy may have fueled his greatness, and what Lincoln’s face tells us about the man and the president. We end the week by considering what Lincoln means for us today.

Lincoln is widely regarded as one of our finest presidents, according to a Gallup poll. Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy join Lincoln as the top three presidents. But only Lincoln has broad bipartisan appeal. Reagan ranks high because of he is revered by Republicans, not by Democrats. JFK ranks high because he is first among Democrats. Republicans put him last. Only Lincoln is popular among Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Lincoln is also unique because he is revered across the generations. He is considered the greatest president by 20 to 23 percent of every age group, from young adults to Americans age 65 or older.

Lincoln’s twin goals were to preserve the union and end slavery. By keeping the union together, he passed the severest test ever of the American experiment. We have seen divisive times since then, but none that rival the war between North and South. By signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he started the nation down another road toward unification.

Amidst fears of culture wars and class warfare today, Lincoln stands as a reminder that any divide can be overcome. “Indeed,” write Gallup analysts, “200 years after his birth, Lincoln may be one of the nation’s most powerful forces for political harmony.”

What does Lincoln mean to you?

Is he a force for political harmony today?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.