“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln–Second Inaugural March 4, 1865
In a previous post (The Wisdom of Lincoln), I wrote my thoughts, after reading Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, on the wisdom possessed by Abraham Lincoln. I realized, however, that my knowledge on our 16th President was embarrassingly shallow (gleaned, primarily, from discussing him for a week back in high school history class). I made a commitment to myself to spend the next year (2013) reading at least one book on Lincoln a month. I ended up reading 6,734 pages over 16 books that included major biographies, studies of his speeches, and books on his marriage, as well as books that augmented Lincoln’s era, including slave narratives, the major battles, and even the first-hand account of Mary Lincoln’s seamstress (a former slave). I tried to acquire as full a picture of this man as I could from as many perspectives as possible, and, through all of this, what I came to find out is that the man’s wisdom, strength and courage never grew old.
What transpired over the course of this project led me to a deep appreciation of this man who, in my opinion, was not only the greatest president in our nation’s history, but, perhaps, the greatest American public figure. While my initial opinions voiced in my blog on the wisdom of Lincoln have not changed, my admiration for the man, what he stood for, and what he accomplished has influenced everything from my doctoral dissertation to the way I think about leadership, power, and influence in the modern context. This, then, is a follow-up to my initial blog post. You can check out the books that comprised my reading at the end of this post.
(***As a side note, I highly recommend this intellectual exercise. Pick one topic you want to know more about, and devote one book a month to it, be it a scholarly interest, something related to self-improvement, or learning how to bake. I promise you will walk away more highly informed on that topic and more self-aware as a human being for having done so.)
1. Lincoln was “Lincoln” long before he became “Lincoln”. Here is what I mean by that. While most of us know the Abraham Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural, his assassination and the marble statue of him in D.C., the man as he was far outshines the legend. As you read his history, you find a man shaped early by his moral convictions, a man who defied in many ways his times, his context, his peers, and his parentage. We all know the stories: the young boy reading Shakespeare behind the plow, the quick-witted country lawyer, the ribald storyteller with just the right yarn at just the right time, the man who held his own against the greatest debater of the day. What is not as popularly known is just how much Lincoln, from a very early age, stood by his convictions even and especially when they cut across the grain of everyone else. When every other boy bragged about their hunting prowess (and when hunting meant food on an otherwise empty table), Lincoln despised the practice, killing only one lone turkey in all his boyhood years. When most everyone else drank and chewed tobacco or, for pious reasons, denounced those who did, Lincoln neither participated in such practices nor openly condemned those who did. Indeed, in one of his early public speeches, he asked for tolerance from the teetotalers regarding the community’s drunkards, stating that those who did not participate could hardly know the state of mind inherent in those who did. When most people exercised their “right” to dehumanize blacks, Lincoln was cordial and welcoming. When everyone else made the politically prosperous decision to be a Jackson Democrat, Lincoln threw his hat in with the fledgling Whig party. I could go on, but you get the idea. And all of this occurred long before he stood against every major voice on slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment and the riotous idea of offering “Charity for All” as a mandate for Reconstruction.
2. Lincoln “became” the President of the United States. William Miller, author of Lincoln’s Virtues and President Lincoln, Duty of a Statesman, stated that no other president was as unqualified to be president at his election: a one-term Congressman whose acknowledged education consisted, in total, of but one complete year; a man with no administrative experience of any kind whatsoever; a candidate from a party that had never elected anyone to the presidency; a candidate who, if elected, would be the first president not from the province of the original 13 colonies; a candidate who was not even the first name on his own party’s ballot; a man whose only claim to national fame was in losing election after election to the great Stephan Douglas…the list of reasons not to elect Lincoln go on and on. And yet, as Miller also argues, perhaps no other man was as qualified to become president more than Lincoln (for all the reasons enumerated in point one above). Try to imagine James Buchanan or Millard Fillmore or Stephan Douglas navigating the waters of the Civil War, the multiple military defeats, the overwhelming numbers of naysayers (particularly within his own party) who cried for peace and an early end to the war even if it meant compromise with the slave-holding South, the politically disastrous Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment (not to mention the lesser known problems that were huge potential pitfalls for Lincoln–the proposed Crittenden Compromise, the Trent affair, the massacre at Fort Pillow, the underhanded dealings of his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, while Chase sat on his cabinet!, etc.). Try even to imagine George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama walking the razor’s edge of deep internal political strife in the middle of the costliest war in American history after having lost a beloved son in the White House while newspapers were accusing the First Lady of being, at best a Southern sympathizer, at worst, a spy, with the composure, conviction and clarity of Abraham Lincoln. It would not happen. Though Lincoln had no real business being the president, he became the greatest one we have had to date.
3. Lincoln’s moral convictions brooked no impasse. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Lincoln’s strategy for effective leadership was what little strategy he actually had. In one interview, Lincoln was asked his policy for leadership. He responded by saying that he had no policy; in fact, he went on to say, this was such a time that “a man with a policy would have been fatal to the country. I have never had a policy. I have simply tried to do what seemed best as each day came.” Try teaching that at business school! Lincoln’s great “leadership” talent manifested itself in what today would be considered sheer lunacy in any School of Administration: Lincoln filtered everything through his deep belief in his own moral convictions and let the rest be damned. Take the Emancipation Proclamation as but one in a host of examples. The only slaves he “proclaimed” free were those in states where he had no power to enforce the proclamation (slaves held in Southern states), not in those states where he could legally enforce it, in effect, “freeing” no one and failing to acknowledge those he could. Talk about a failure of leadership policy! And yet, in one stroke of genius, Lincoln took the bite out of the Southern argument for war, gave slaves a reason to either revolt or runaway to seek refuge behind Northern lines, and issued, as a military action, the first words any President publicly decreed concerning the matter of slavery as decidedly against the practice, paving the way for the 13th Amendment that abolished it for all time. No other President, not Washington, Jefferson, Madison, or Jackson had ever made such a proclamation, and, perhaps, no other president could.
4. Charity as the curative to the pathology of power. Lincoln had a great right to be triumphant throughout his life. He was, as we know, a true self-made man, something he might have lorded over others. He was physically bigger and stronger than most of his peers. He believed in his superior intellect and had, seemingly by Divine Right, been elevated to the highest office in the land. As such, especially as a War President, Lincoln had at his disposal tremendous powers and could execute them with full Executive Authority. In the end, his army was victorious, his side on the “right”, and yet, throughout it all, his guiding compass pointed at “malice towards none.” Think of that: no one would grudge Lincoln his right to unleash the fury of hell on the South during his Second Inaugural (indeed, many thought he would and many, later, wished he had); instead, we get those famous words intoning a sense of moral judgment and responsibility on both the South and the North. God, in Lincoln’s estimation, did not side with the victors, but with the cause of righteousness itself. It is hard to imagine any other president with such immense power and such a right to wield that power being as continually gracious and merciful in tone and deed as Lincoln. His reputation for pardons enraged his Secretary of War, who, rightfully, believed that doing so would cause the soldiers to break down in discipline, yet Lincoln offered pardon after pardon, saying “hanging the boy for sleeping at his post won’t teach him anything.” He presided over the costliest war in American history not, in the end, to emerge victorious (that is, with the North brandishing the club of the bully champion), but rather, in a sense, to emerge sacred. To preserve the Union, not just as it was, but as something yet to be–a “new birth of freedom”–something Lincoln believed it could be: a nation capable of achieving a “just and lasting peace”. In fact, many Southerners believed that Wilkes’ assassination of the president was the worst thing that could happen to their cause moving forward in Reconstruction. They wanted Lincoln at the helm after the war’s end.
As you can see, the strengths of this man’s convictions, virtues and clarity of purpose stand for themselves. What made Lincoln “Lincoln”? His deep sense of the right (as God gave him to see the right) forged throughout a lifetime pursuing the double project of education towards both the mastery of content and, much more importantly, the mastery of self. There is much to learn from this man, and much I still wish to learn.
**For what it’s worth, my personal favorites were Lincoln’s Virtues, The Duty of a Statesman, and The Eloquent President. My favorite biography was Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, by Carl Sandburg. My recommendations for anyone wanting to just pick out a couple of books to read up on Lincoln would be Gore Vidal’s novel, Lincoln, and William Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues.