In an era that lives by self-promotion- an era that takes someone like Donald Trump seriously as a presidential candidate- Presidents' Day is a day to remember that greatness still resides in what one does, not what one claims to be.
That is why Abraham Lincoln will always belong to every age. Because Lincoln was not just a great president; he may have been one of the greatest men that this country has yet produced. His rare combination of self-confidence and humility produced the archetype of "the American, this new man," who is still universally admired.
While many of our heroes have lost their gloss, Abraham Lincoln still shines brightly for many Americans because there is so much to learn from his life.
Lincoln was once criticized over the publication of a private letter he sent to an actor because it dared express Lincoln’s opinion on William Shakespeare. Although Lincoln did not write the letter for public circulation, in those days it was common for private letters to end up in the newspapers.
Lincoln was well-read in Shakespeare. It was evident in the fluidity of much of his writing that he got some of his short, Anglo-Saxon style from Shakespeare. While Lincoln would never match the volume of the Bard, in his own way, Lincoln’s contribution to American letters ranks probably just below Mark Twain’s own accomplishments.
“The novelist William Dean Howell’s claim about his friend Mark Twain,” writes literary biographer Fred Kaplan, “that he was the ‘Lincoln of our literature,’ can effectively be rephrased with the focus on our sixteenth president: Lincoln was the Twain of our politics. Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience or posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness.”
Critics, however, in Lincoln's day thought it pretentious for a man without any formal training in “literature” to express opinions about Shakespeare.
And as a consequence of elitist criticism, Lincoln gave us this enduring gem, precisely balanced on the pen point of Shakespearean grace: “I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it."
Indeed, during Lincoln’s life he was ridiculed over his origins, (from a log-cabin); his looks (he described himself as “homely”); his lack of formal education (he was mostly self-taught); his wife (who could be quite arrogant, aggressive, and at times clinically crazy); and a great deal besides.
Probably no President dealt with as much abuse as Lincoln. Yet throughout his life Lincoln rarely struck back at his critics. He maintained, instead, a firm confidence about who he was, avoiding all pretense of superiority even when he knew he was right.
“What a sharpshooter’s bead he could draw in one sentence,” the Chicago poet and Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg said in The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Edition.
Sandburg relates that once Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward- who was hoping to win the presidential nomination that Lincoln wrangled for himself- offered to put a Lincoln dispatch to the English government “couched in more diplomatic terms.”
Then," said Secretary of War Stanton, "came the demonstration. The President, half wheeling in his seat, threw one leg over the chair-arm, and, holding the letter in his hand, said, 'Seward, do you suppose Palmerston will understand our position from that letter, just as it is?'
"'Certainly, Mr. President.'
"'Do you suppose the London Times will?'
"'Do you suppose the average Englishman of affairs will?'
"'Certainly; it cannot be mistaken in England.'
"'Do you suppose that a hackman out on his box will understand it?'
"'Very readily, Mr. President.'
"'Very well, Seward, I guess we'll let her slide just as she is.'
The lack of artfulness helped Lincoln turn critics, like Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary Seward from scoffers into supporters.
“Executive force and vigor are rare qualities,” Seward wrote his wife. “The President is the best of us.”
In 1855 Lincoln was hired to represent Cyrus McCormick who was claiming patent infringement against a defendant. In addition, McCormick retained a number of better established lawyers from the eastern US, including Edwin M. Stanton. As the trial commenced in Cincinnati, the other attorneys ignored Lincoln, shutting him out of the case with Stanton going so far as to call Lincoln “that damned long armed ape,” within his hearing. Lincoln swallowed his pride and watched the trial from the courtroom with other spectators.
When McCormick later sent Lincoln a check for his services on the case, Lincoln returned the check explaining that he really hadn’t done anything to earn it.
When the client returned the check to Lincoln and insisted that he cash the check, Lincoln again swallowed his pride and cashed the check despite his grumbling about the “rough” treatment he got from Stanton. But he never struck back at Stanton. In fact, in Stanton he recognized administrative qualities that could be useful to him
That’s why Lincoln later picked Stanton to become his Secretary of War after the resignation of Simon Cameron, a crooked politician from Pennsylvania. At the time of his selection Stanton was still an avowed critic of Lincoln. Lincoln was willing to overlook this because of Stanton’s superb managerial skills. As their relationship matured Stanton became one of Lincoln’s warmest admirers.
Stanton was in the room when Lincoln died, just across from Ford’s Theatre. Stanton gave Lincoln the most fitting of all epitaphs upon his passing: "Now he belongs to the ages."
I still can’t read those words without awe at the full measure of devotion that Lincoln continues to give our country.
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