While many of our heroes have lose their gloss over time, Abraham Lincoln still shines brightly for many Americans because there is so much to learn from his life.
Lincoln’s life should be reexamined in light of our disappointments in the current leadership on both sides of the aisle.
Lincoln wasn’t afraid to fail. That’s because he was willing to learn along the way.
For example, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln was defeated in his race for the United States Senate by Stephen Douglas, making it Lincoln’s third electoral defeat in a row.
As Lincoln emerged from the telegraph office into the rain-soaked street in Springfield, Illinois he lost his balance when his foot slipped on the slick boardwalk. Catching himself before he tumbled into the mud Lincoln muttered to under his breath, “A slip, but not a fall.”
He then smiled brightly.
Recognizing the symbolic importance for his political life of catching himself before he fell, Lincoln understood that his political career was not over despite his string of defeats.
He started for home reenergized. In two years he was elected President of the United States.
Lincoln had a strong sense of self. Lincoln was quite clear about his strengths and weaknesses. This often allowed him to shrug off his critics and convert them to friends.
Lincoln said, “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 and aggressive, not to say 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 and that helped him turn critics into supporters.
In 1855, for example, 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.
What’s most amazing is that Lincoln later picked Stanton to become his War Secretary after the resignation of Simon Cameron.
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. Standing at the foot of Lincoln’s bed as latter died of a gunshot wound to the head, Stanton proclaimed of Lincoln: “Now he be belongs to the ages.”
“I claim not to have controlled event,” Lincoln candidly wrote in 1864, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Lincoln’s critics (both contemporary and posthumous) have often pointed to this confession as a sign that while Lincoln successfully rode the whirlwind of Civil War, he was not the builder of the nation that others have claimed- a kind of second founding father after Washington.
But it was this essentially negative trait (negative in the sense that it was passive and did not require action) that allowed Lincoln to remake US society on the basis of the words of the Declaration of Independence that declared “all men are created equal,” to include African Americans.
He was able to accomplish this revolutionary object through passive management of the Civil War without turning it in to a “remorseless revolutionary struggle,” which might have irreparably divided the nation during Reconstruction.
Nowhere was Lincoln’s task more arduous than in managing and massaging the personalities of his generals (and to a lesser extent, members of Congress).
Many of Lincoln’s strongest critics were generals who felt that Lincoln wasn’t taking their advice on how to conduct the war. Yet Lincoln ignored personality (and public opinion) in supporting his generals and stuck to the principle of rewarding those that fought and won battles.
The most striking examples of this were the cases of General George McClellan and US Grant.
McClellan was the commander of the Army of the Potomac and later general-in-chief of all Federal forces.Mostly on the strength of a strong personality, McClellan dazzled soldiers and politicians despite the fact that he squandered several opportunities to beat the Confederates in battle. He was glamorous, good-looking and just credible enough to be plausible.
Lincoln however was not fooled.
Instead, Lincoln found himself drawn to the unpopular and often shy US Grant. Grant won battles even though he was publicly ridiculed for being a drunkard, slovenly and lacking in refinement. When a group protested Lincoln keeping Grant in command despite hearsay that Grant was a drunkard, Lincoln only reply was asking them what brand whiskey Grant drank so he could get some for his other generals.
Lincoln was also a complex man. It showed in the complex relationships he had with those in his own family. But he had a loving family, which is a lot more complex than just good intentions and happy relations.
For example, Lincoln’s father does not fit very prominently in biographies of Lincoln. This is because Lincoln was reticent when it came to his father. When he did speak of him, Lincoln was somewhat scornful of his father’s lack of ambition. They were, Lincoln was very sure, incompatible.
He might have echoed Winston Churchill who once said that to his mother he owed everything, to his father, nothing.
Both men however owed much to their fathers.Many of the traits they used to become a successful chief executives and a successful commander-in-chief in times of war came from their fathers, like sense of self and confidence.
There are times in life when people feel like nothing is working well for them, when in fact, the period may be leading to another, more fertile time. Lincoln had several stretches where he despaired of ever amounting to much in the world or where it seemed his ambition outran his ability.
But driven by the inward necessities of his heart he persevered, because he had a heart.
I just wish America would know him more thoroughly, because he still shines so brightly.