Since today is July 4, Independence Day in these here United States, today would be a perfect day to talk about its greatest president. I recently read two biographies of the sixteenth president: 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Lincoln by Brian Thornton and A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr.
And what I learned is that most of what we thought we knew about this man who saved the US from division and ended slavery is pretty much wrong. In fact, the truth is much more interesting.
Here we have a man who idolized George Washington but openly joined the chorus of “King Andrew” Jackson’s detractors when he was in the Illinois legislature. So who did Lincoln turn to for historical guidance when his time in the White House began? Obviously, Washington, a man whose modesty and calm leadership set the bar high for the presidency and, ironically, Andrew Jackson, a slave holder who nonetheless thought nothing of burning Charleston, South Carolina to the ground if the state tried to bolt the Union. Like Washington and Jackson, Lincoln was self-educated. Like Jackson, he was self-made. But while Jackson had a violent temper, Washington maintained a certain aloofness and humility. Like Lincoln, Washington was ambitious, but Washington never showed it. He let the right people know what he wanted to do and let his actions earn him the right to do it. It’s a lesson Lincoln took to heart and most politicians, especially today, have been utterly clueless about.
Lincoln was honest to a fault. In an age when it was almost expected for those on the frontier to abandon massive debt and flee somewhere to start over, Lincoln assumed the debt of a deceased business partner on with his own in what he jokingly referred to as his “National Debt.” People noticed. They also noticed that this politician-turned-lawyer was more than generous with his junior law partners in dividing fees and even turned down his share of legal fees earned by his firm while Lincoln was campaigning for other Whigs (and later Republicans) or serving in Congress.
Much is made of the heated tension between Abraham and Mary Lincoln. In fact, the couple were more like John and Abigail Adams, though Lincoln was far calmer than Mr. Adams with Mary being the more spirited of the two. Much is made of Mary Lincoln’s fragile mental state, brought on by the death of two sons (Edward and Willie) before either reached adolescence. The fact was Mary Todd was considered a vivacious and very learned woman for her time. She enjoyed the attention of many suitors upon her arrival in Springfield, including that of a young up-and-coming politician named Stephen Douglas.
But the attraction between Lincoln and Mary Todd was a case of opposites attract. Lincoln was humble, quiet, and quick with a sense of humor. Mary was high-strung and fiercely loyal. What brought them together was learning. Lincoln had taught himself to read and write, learning math in his brief time in formal schooling. Mary was far more educated than most women in her time. Both read voraciously and often read to each other. They were intellectual soulmates.
There is an old urban legend that makes its rounds telling how Lincoln was a failure most of his life before achieving the presidency. The list usually leaves out Lincoln’s success as a state legislator, a self-taught lawyer, a leader in the Whig and Republican parties, and what was actually accomplished in his debates with Stephen Douglas. One thing listed as a failure was Lincoln’s single term in Congress. In reality, Lincoln devised the system by which the Whig Party would rotate candidates for nomination to Congress, each serving a single term. Lincoln actually deferred running for two terms to allow two other Whigs their time in Congress. Coming home, he decided to focus once more on his law practice, which was one of the most successful in booming Illinois in the Antebellum Era.
So how did this humble man who often stepped aside for rivals for the good of his party get to be president? A lot of things about Lincoln propelled him to the White House. He did, in fact, plan to run again for Senate against Stephen Douglas in 1864. When friends approached him about the nomination for president in 1860, Lincoln “consented” to having his name placed. Like Washington, to whom he would need to draw vast inspiration, he knew that overt ambition was a fast track to losing.
But Lincoln’s success as a lawyer, based on knowing his opponent’s case better than his opponent, would serve him well. Once nominated, Lincoln would turn to his rivals to fill his cabinet. Lincoln felt the best people for the job, not a gang of fawning yes men, would best serve the disintegrating country. William Seward, who wanted the presidency himself, would become one of Lincoln’s closest friends and advisers. Salmon P. Chase would sometimes undermine Lincoln’s leadership only to find himself dragged back into line by a wily Lincoln, who would put both sides of a dispute in the same room to force them to open up about their differences. Edwin Stanton came directly from the rival Democratic Party to run the war effort on Lincoln’s behalf.
Lincoln also was a patient man, more patient than most men in his position and most of his cabinet. He had to be. When your army is commanded by a bunch of preening, egotistical Napoleon wannabes (McClellan, Pope), you need almost supernatural patience. Lincoln may have been patient to a fault, giving McClellan far more chances than he deserved at the head of the army. And certainly his own party, composed of anti-Southern Democrats and radical abolitionists, tested that patience with both sides demanding Lincoln’s fealty. Lincoln never lost sight of his goals. His primary cause was to save the Union. His secondary, but nearly as important, goal was to abolish slavery. But he would jeopardize neither to please the newspapers or Congress. Much is made of the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation, including still-circulating rumors that he didn’t write it. (Rubbish!) Lincoln wanted badly to do it shortly after the Civil War began, but only did so when it could be achieved. And that could only be achieved by a decisive Union victory to convince Congress and the public that the Union could be restored. Lincoln achieved in one short document his twin goals of destroying slavery and declaring the Confederacy to be an insurgency. If the southern slaves were freed after a Union victory, slavery itself would whither and die where it still existed.
But Lincoln’s greatest strength lies in his conciliatory mindset. Almost from the beginning, he began relying on presidential rival Stephen Douglas for support and advice. One of the earliest tragedies of the Civil War was the death of Douglas in 1861. Lincoln himself looked after Douglas’s family after his death, even pardoning a relative accused of desertion. It was this conciliatory attitude the South realized it would need from Lincoln during Reconstruction. Tragically, a hot-headed partisan named John Wilkes Booth, believing he would strike a blow for the South, betrayed both the Union and the fallen Confederacy by murdering the one man who could best sow the Union back together after Lee’s surrender. One should not mourn Booth’s subsequent death at the hands of a Union army posse. His relatives didn’t.
Lincoln is one of those rare men who were in the right place at the right time to do the right thing. Because of him, the slavery question is dead in America. There remains much work to be done, even 146 years after his death, but the nation is stronger for his leadership.