I have been reading Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, and saw Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln (which is now one of my favorite movies of all time), over the weekend, so Abraham Lincoln is fresh on my mind, and, if their portrayal about our 16th president is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt that at least Goodwin’s–whose book was the inspiration for the movie–is), then there is much to gather from studying the wisdom of this remarkable man. (By the way, I highly recommend both the movie and the book).
Here, then, are the lessons I have gleaned from my brief study. Feel free to add your own if you have seen the movie or have read up on Lincoln.
1. Lincoln had a deep understanding of the human condition. Over and over again, one of the key attributes of Lincoln was his ability to “get” human nature in all its foibles, grandeur, stumblings, and strivings. He had a way of peering behind the veil both of his rivals and his associates to see their inner motivations and machinations. As a case in point, Goodwin points out a scene that is telling: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, worked hard to undermine Lincoln in order to replace him during the second election by sending out an “anonymous” circular that tried to paint Lincoln in less than flattering terms. Rather than addressing it head on, Lincoln waited and waited, biding his time as his followers came out of the woodwork to support him, allowing the whole scheme to blow up in Chase’s face. Then, at just the right moment, he sent Chase a letter intimating at how glad Lincoln was to have Chase’s continual service in the cabinet! Only a man who understood both the nature of the individual and of the crowd would have the patience to wait out such an attack and possess the sleight-of-hand to keep Chase in line.
2. Lincoln possessed a deep, earthy wisdom born from experience, suffering, and a love of learning. Abraham Lincoln was that rare sort that understood the life of the mind and the hands. Born, as we all know, on the frontier and raised working his way through life gave Lincoln a patient will that served him throughout his many losses, setbacks, trials and challenges. But what most impresses me is how learned he was. Though he was primarily self-taught, he could quote Shakespeare one minute and spin a good yarn the next. In fact, it was this “earthy” wisdom that most people mistook for simplemindedness. What Goodwin points out is that the “smart” people surrounding Lincoln (particularly his rivals for the presidency) who mistook his thoughtful wisdom for “backwoods” naivety later came to believe, after spending time with him, that he was indeed the greatest among them.
3. Lincoln had the vision to see far beyond his time. What both the book and the movie showcase is Lincoln’s ability to perceive that the actions he took, though unpopular during his time (writing the Emancipation Proclamation and pushing forward the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery), would have far-reaching consequences that gave him the moral courage to withstand bitter opposition from both his rivals and his own cabinet. He knew that abolishing slavery was not only a savvy military move (by freeing the slaves, it took the wind out of the rebels’ fight), it was part of a larger narrative that would extend far beyond his time into the very moral fabric of the human condition. What was so costly in the short time, had to be achieved for its ramifications for all time.
4. There is a difference between the “best” man and the “right” man. By all accounts, William Seward should have been the 16th President of the United States. He was well-known by more people, had a greater political reach, stronger support, and an engaging charisma that made him the easy frontrunner. The fact that he did not end up on the Republican ballot baffled everyone, most of whom saw no hope for the bumbling Lincoln. If not Seward, than Chase or Edward Bates. These men were all more qualified in just about every way. Lincoln, however, by moves both savvy and shrewd, used his acumen to become everyone’s favorite second choice, effectually negating the other candidates’ ability to rise to the top of the ballot and gain the number of votes needed to win. Once he won, these rivals (with the exception of Chase) became Lincoln’s greatest supporters. Though few initially thought Lincoln to be the best man for the job, almost all came to see him as the right man.
5. Wisdom is hard-earned. We are all familiar with the depths of Lincoln’s sufferings (his mother died when he was nine, he was disconnected from his overbearing father, he grew up in hard labor, his first love died of typhoid fever, he experienced multiple failures during his political career, and, of course, the deaths of two of his sons). What is remarkable is how Lincoln used these experiences to become a deeper man. His moral compass, deep convictions, and profound wisdom were all choices Lincoln made. I do not believe that Abraham Lincoln was born any more gifted or “fitted for the times” (to quote from the movie) than you or I may be; what made Lincoln “Lincoln” was what he did with his experiences to become a better man. As Aristotle reminds us, there is no shortcut for wisdom; we must choose it over and over and over again. Lincoln’s wisdom was hard-earned, and we are all better off for it.
So my takeaway on wisdom is this:
Wisdom, as displayed by Abraham Lincoln, comes from hard work, deep learning, long reflection, patient resolve, and knowing how to use one’s life experiences, both good and bad, for becoming the right person at the right time to do what is right when it is required.