In a conversation recently with an eminent presidential biographer, I began a question by saying, “I don’t subscribe to the ‘great man theory’ of history.” He immediately replied, “Oh, I do,” and cited the compelling example of Abraham Lincoln, without whom the United States and the world would be different indeed.

I take his point, but with this caveat: Even Lincoln felt profoundly that he was subject to history, not sovereign over it. “I claim not to have controlled events,” he wrote to one correspondent, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

Lincoln, in other words, was essential, tapped by fate for a specific test — yet the outcome of this assay was not predetermined. He could have wavered, flagged, fallen short.

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