I n 1863, following the Battle at Gettysburg, Lincoln, in a simple and ill-received speech, stated, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” It is hard to believe that someone with Lincoln’s intelligence truly believed that, but then again he had a knack for self- deprecating statements.
Needless to say, the question of Lincoln’s relevance has never been in doubt. More than 16,000 books have been written about him, second only in number to Jesus Christ. Students spend entire careers examining every minute detail of this poor, frontier boy. Historians argue and correct each other about this feature and that feature of his life. His father was landowner—no, he was just a vagrant. Lincoln was a Christian—no, he was an atheist. He had a harem of girls courting him—no, he was a closeted homosexual. His wife, Mary Todd, was cantankerous and made a miserable home for Lincoln—no, she was just misunderstood and deeply troubled. The list goes on and on.
Books of every sort have been written on this legend. Preeminent Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, says his favorite book on Lincoln has to be Lincoln on the coming of the Caterpillar Tractor! My personal favorite might be Lincoln and his First Pet.
The question, then, is not if Lincoln is still relevant in 2018 but rather how Lincoln is still relevant, and what can be learned from him.
The greatest barrier to studying Lincoln is what famed historian Robert Johannsen calls the “myth of Abraham Lincoln”. In his seminal work Lincoln, the South, and Slavery, he aptly writes, “Anyone who embarks on a study of Lincoln…must first come to terms with the Lincoln myth. The effort to penetrate the crust of legend that surrounds Lincoln is both a formidable and intimidating task.”
Yet with every generation, a new take on Lincoln is put forth. Why? Pulitzer Prize winner, Eric Foner, tells us in his Fiery Trial that we “think we know him, because in looking at Lincoln we are looking at ourselves”. Indeed he embodies the American spirit that we so idolize: the poor, self-taught man who, with hard work, ambition and a little luck, reaches the pinnacle of success.
How did the unschooled Abraham Lincoln, a frontier man, become one of the most revered national icons? In Lincoln’s Ethics, William Miller tells us that it is because Lincoln was a great man who was also a good man, a man constantly developing himself who had a mind inclined to “plow down to first principles and hold to them, and combined clarity of thoughts with firmness of will and power of expression, a man whose conduct rose to a higher moral standard” the higher his office and the greater his power.
During Lincoln’s formative years, the United States was rapidly transitioning into the fast-paced and urban world of modern industry. Likewise so too are we transitioning into a world of instant communication and instantaneous artificial intelligence. The dominant mode of expression is quickness, speedy analysis, and rapid-fire responses. Politicians and celebrities do as Samuel Johnson did during Lincoln’s time—“talk for victory, scoring points on others, displaying what he knows with bravado.” The prime quality of Lincoln’s mind was never speed, which today is the defining feature of intelligence. It was also not breadth, another defining feature of modern industry. Lincoln’s mind, rather, “cut deeply, perhaps even slowly or at least with effort and concentrated attention, into a few subjects. His mind was purposive—personally, politically, and morally.”
He always searched for first principles, not as a philosopher or metaphysician does, spinning webs of speculation, wading through one abstract principle to the next, but as a lawyer, politician, and moralist—at their very best—does, by constantly and courageously seeking the nub of the matter.
This would be Lincoln’s trademark throughout his presidency. With such qualities of mind, Lincoln, once he acquired a moral position, would not easily retreat from it. Mary Todd would use the word “stubborn” to describe her husband once he took a position.
Lincoln’s peculiar distinction among the American pantheon is as Herbert Croly states in The Promise of American Life that “his thoughts and actions always looked towards the realization of the highest and most edifying democratic ideals.” Above all, Lincoln loved the democratic republic of the founding fathers and firmly believed in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. He believed the Union was the last best hope of earth and that in “giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free”.
Lincoln was always concerned with the proper treatment of all creatures. Early 19th century America had no Animal Rights League and boys could be cruel, especially to animals. Lincoln, by contrast, was not only kind to animals but campaigned on their behalf. His step-sister, Matilda Moore, recalls that he once preached a “youthful sermon”, defending the right to life of ants. Anecdotes abound about his rescuing all kinds of animals from dogs and pigs to frogs and turtles.
For instance, imagine some young boys put hot coals on the backs of turtles to watch the turtles’ reactions. When this happens there are several courses of action to take. Some will join in the fun. Others, who feel the pain of the turtles but are intimidated by their peers, simply keep their opinions to themselves. Others still will choose to ignore the matter completely. And still more, as “budding representatives of the moral relativisms of the century to come” will say, “they like to put hot coals on turtles. I don’t like to put hot coals on turtles; let’s agree to disagree and not be judgmental.” But a select few will do as ten-year-old Abe Lincoln did and tell his companions that what they are doing is intrinsically wrong and then furthermore draw out the moral principles and give a speech to a classroom of ten-year-olds on how cruelty to all creatures, particularly weaker ones, is wrong.
The United States in Lincoln’s time, particularly the West, had a strong prejudice against Native Americans. In fact, Lincoln would live through that period of time which saw the greatest mistreatment to Natives: the Seminole War and the Trail of Tears. Lincoln had every reason to be prejudiced as a few of his own family members had been killed at the hands of Indians. But Lincoln never shared in this prejudice. He would truly show this as president when he put a stop to the execution of 300 Sioux warriors, and only after personally examining each individual file did he then reduce the number from 300 to 38, those 38, he said, who had committed “genuine atrocities.” He had no ill will or malice towards anyone.
As a Captain during the Black Hawk War, Lincoln was once again faced with a moral dilemma. An old Indian stumbled into their camp with only a single piece of paper from a government official, stating the man to be a decent man and to be given passage. Lincoln’s men argued that he had “to be a dammed spy...and by God we have come to fight Indians, and by God we intend to do so.” Once again, just like in the case of the turtles, a man has varying courses of action to take. As an elected captain, in order not to disturb popularity, one could turn a blind eye. Or with a “noble rage” one could, as the 23-year-old Lincoln did, put himself between the man and the soldiers and exclaim, “Men, this must not be done…blood must not be shed, it must not be on us…this man trusted in this government paper that white man would protect him—to kill him would be a violation of fundamental righteousness.” When called a coward for this, he could have stepped down, but Lincoln had already plowed his way to the first principle, and now with “chains of steel” would hold steadfast and in a “noble rage” proclaim “if any man think me a coward, let him come test it.”
Lincoln never exhibited any trace of racial superiority, regardless of the fact that he lived in a time of great prejudice not just against Negroes but also whites. As a member of the Whig Party, and the Whigs being dominated by mostly Evangelical Protestants, nativism was something that Lincoln was quite familiar with. As Catholic immigrants, particularly the Irish, flooded the borders, nativists became more extreme and the Know-Nothing party formed. Most of Lincoln’s associates were inclined to be Know-Nothings, including his wife, who had formed some radical stereotypes of Irish maids. But Lincoln, in 1852, long before he was a ubiquitous public figure, exhibited no signs of radical nativism, and in fact, in a letter to his friend Josh Speed, he wrote,
How could I be a know nothing. How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be rapid. As a nation we began by declaring all men are created equal. We now read it "All men are created equal except Negroes". And if the know nothings have their way it will read "all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics."
Lincoln did not hunt, fish, swear, fight, drink, or smoke. In the rough male-dominated western U.S., physicality was the mark of a man, and Lincoln was enormously strong and a skilled wrestler. A man with a different moral makeup might have used this strength to bully but records show Lincoln only being involved in three altercations, each of those in protection of another. In all things he strived to go against the grain and to discipline himself. It was customary for men to drink and Lincoln’s abstinence was well noted. His step-mother remarked once: “He never drank…he was temperate in all things, too much so sometimes.” Another report, documenting Benjamin Harrison defeating Martin Van Buren in the popular vote, specifically says, “I do not believe there has ever been such jollification. Champagne flowed like water and Lincoln was present and made a great deal of sport with speeches, witty sayings, and stories. He even played leap frog, but he wouldn’t drink a thing.” In a world of smoking, one book titled Lincoln Never Smoked states unequivocally “He did not even smoke.” He never used bad language nor did he “run a horse race - even though it was universal among the whole of the country.” William Herndon writes, “Lincoln was entirely free from the vices…”
The point of this is not to paint Lincoln as a perfect model of conventional morality. It is rather to present him as one who made his own judgements independent of conventional morality. These personal abstentions would align quite well with the growing circle of radical evangelicals who, with aggressive benevolence, would make their mark upon the country. But Lincoln never would allow his personal choices to take the form of aggressive benevolence. He was not a moral narcissist. The temperance movement of the mid 1800’s would move to abolish alcohol, but Lincoln did not “join in the thoroughgoing evangelistic and moralistic teetotalism and the use of the law to ban alcohol.” To further separate himself from radicalism, he would be the first to offer a drink or joke about his abstention. Most moral narcissists would not tell self-deprecating stories in regards to their personal choices.
Lincoln was never a revolutionary as one might assume someone, who disengaged from as many activities as he did, would be. On the contrary, he lived in and affirmed the world in which he found himself. He was never engaged in a clenched fist “protest” against the world in which he found himself. He was never alienated due to his choices. He was not seeking to overthrow and replace things with his ideals and morals. He did not make sweeping condemnations, nor was he a reformer. His choices were personal, not systematic and ideological. He was not like Karl Marx condemning whole institutions. He was not part of a self-conscious “happy few” congratulating itself on its moral superiority to the mass of lesser beings. He did not withdraw to a cave to be a hermit, to purify himself from the contamination of the evil world. His rejections and disengagements were the judgements of his own mind that he came to trust and act upon.
Lincoln, above all else, was a constant self-developer. This is perhaps the key to Lincoln’s success and his relevance today. Some historians will document Lincoln’s growth, but growth implies something that is natural, like the way a plant grows. What Lincoln accomplished largely on his own was not mere growth but rather self-development through an insatiable appetite to read and a yearning to learn. His life, even during his presidency, was punctuated by intense projects in self-education and improvement. Lincoln had no formal education; he was not an Ivy League alumnus like many of his peers. He would write the following in 1859 about the effects of books and how the humble and poor person could be brought within a circle of shared thought across time and space, thereby having a new confidence in his own powers:
It is very probable that the great mass of men….were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior, but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To emancipate the mind from this falsehood; is the great task which printing came to perform.”(It is worth noting that only a couple of years later Lincoln, ever true to self-development, would correctly spell the word “emancipation” in his famous proclamation.)
Through reading and self-education, Lincoln would develop a confidence in his own intellectual powers that would be key to his accomplishments. He believed that he could read a book on any subject and learn to master it. Most importantly, he developed a self-confidence with respect to others that he need not defer to those with more formal learning. It is this very self-confidence that would drive him not to smoke, drink, gamble, or swear. This same confidence would give him the moral fiber and courage to emancipate four million people from bondage. So having established Lincoln as a learner, it is important to point out that he was above all a moral learner. He learned what most men can never learn: what it takes for their ambition to serve their virtue. It takes subordination to a worthy end, and self-restraining generosity in seeking it. “The story of his life, morally considered, would be the increasing worthiness, so that it would come to correspond to the increasing vastness of the political power within which he would act.”
Take away the man from the penny, remove the face from Rushmore, take down the memorial, erase the name from high schools and war ships and you will find an Illinois country lawyer who, in 1861, would find himself the president of the United States. And his election would precipitate the nation’s worst crisis. Who was this man and what qualities would he bring to this high post in such a time of turmoil? The development over the last 52 years would begin to exhibit through his magnanimity. The Lincoln who could not bring himself to shoot a turkey, would likewise find himself placing his greatest rivals and enemies in his most important cabinet positions. As William Herndon best put it in 1866, “He was certainly a poor hater. He never judged a man by his like or dislike. If a man had maligned him, and was the fittest for the job or place, he would be put into that place just as soon as he would place a friend.” This virtue would be particularly notable to any person in an active pursuit of accomplishing great and controversial things in an arena of conflict over power, policy, and philosophy.
Lincoln’s generosity of spirit and ill will towards no one, in combination with strength of will, would lead to what his once and then closest friend William Seward would call “great resolutions”. This same virtue would be evident to the nation as Lincoln never firmly blamed one side or the other for the precipitous position they found themselves in. What is most admirable about Lincoln in office is his charity, coupled with his resolute character. Many charitable people are not strong-willed and all too often the strong willed and forcefully resolute person lacks in charity. The 16th president, to the astonishment of the entire world then and even now, was both. Lincoln knew he was an intelligent man. He must have thought about his journey from nothing to president. Yet somehow he achieved a detached sense of self. This was in part largely due to his desire to “plow to first principles”. His ego had no role in the enormous human drama that confronted him. His was a righteous and noble task: “to preserve the union, that last best hope of earth,” not to mercilessly wage war and flex his might as president of the United States.
Perhaps the best way to understand Lincoln’s magnanimity is through his incredibly eloquent and homily-like second inaugural address:
But let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away? Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 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.
A young Lincoln, not much older than ten, would write his name in his book, as a million other children have done, in that self-indulgent childlike fantasy that someday that name will ring bells. Underneath his name can be found a little poem:
His hand and pen
He will be good
But God knows when.
Eric Foner must be right: when we look at Lincoln we look at ourselves, or at least the self we want to be. He is the best of us. His relevance will always lie with his great political achievements - that is to be certain. But in a world now dominated by fast talking, quick thinking, instant gratification, mind-controlling media, and politicians who abuse their power and privilege, his relevance may be the example he left behind for us: an imperfect man devoted to service of country and fellow man, champion of principles essential to the common good, who constantly sought improvement, whether intellectually, morally, or professionally. Regardless, he certainly was wrong when he said at Gettysburg that “the world will little note nor long remember.” Rather, as Charles Sumner so aptly spoke in his eulogy, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it.”