Monday, November 16, 2009

The Greatness of Lincoln


George McGovern


The Greatness of Lincoln

What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy... our defense is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men in all lands everywhere.

─ Abraham Lincoln, speech in Illinois, September 1858

Two hundred years ago Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in the Kentucky wilderness. From crude, disadvantaged beginnings he somehow recognized significant capabilities within himself and nurtured a determination to succeed. He rose improbably becoming a clerk, businessman, lawyer, legislator, statesman, and national political figure. From the heights of presidential power and privilege he led the country through its most terrible trial of civil war. In his resolve he maintained that no state or sectional interest could break apart a Union formed in perpetuity. In his genius he transformed the bloody struggle into a second American Revolution, a "new birth of freedom" that would finally allow fulfillment of the national promise of equality for all Americans, regardless of color. In life he was respected and ridiculed, beloved and hated; in death he was martyred. Lincoln is revered as our greatest president, but he is certainly more than that. He is an unparalleled national treasure, a legend that best represents the democratic ideal. Every generation looks to Lincoln for strength, inspiration, and wisdom. We want to know everything abouthim, and we wish we could be more like him. Why do we admire him so?

Abraham Lincoln was a self-made man who rose above the circumstances of his birth. The son of antislavery Baptists, reared in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana, he led an unpretentious and obscure early life. He knew no privilege or advantage, and was taught no life lessons except the necessity of unrelenting work. His formal education totaled just one year, but from that brief experience in the schoolroom he learned that knowledge, no matter how acquired, would be the key to improving his station in life. He never stopped reading, absorbing, analyzing, and through dogged determination he grew in wisdom and stature. Perhaps he was inspired by his mother's, and then his stepmother's, gentle insistence that he could improve himself through reading, learning, and mental activity.

He learned from all of his failures—and there were many. Dissatisfied with farm life, he left his father's home for good at age twenty-one, settling in New Salem, Illinois, a tiny village that was, like him, rough, undeveloped, and facing an uncertain future. He purchased an interest in two small general stores, but chose unreliable men for partners who left him with a staggering debt that took him years to pay. At various times he worked as a field hand, postal clerk, blacksmith, and surveyor, positions that at best brought temporary satisfaction but left him feeling unfulfilled. In 1832 he lost the first political contest he entered, for the Illinois state legislature.

But Lincoln would not resign himself to failure and loss; instead he learned from each experience and carried on. People, he found, liked him despite his rough exterior—or perhaps because of it. They laughed at his jokes and liked to be around him. He inspired trust. He paid his debts. He ran again for the state legislature in 1834 and was elected, and then reelected four more times. He threw himself into the study of law, spending nearly every waking moment reading and analyzing the rules of pleading and practice, and became an attorney in 1836. He earned a reputation for honesty and sincerity, and he parlayed his standing in legal circles and his political connections into election to Congress in 1846. In 1842 he married the vivacious Mary Todd, perhaps the most enchanting young lady in Illinois, who would fuel his driving ambition.

During most of his life Lincoln suffered from recurring bouts of emotional depression. Perhaps the best account of his depression is by the historian Joshua Wolf Shenk, who wrote of Lincoln:

"He told jokes and stories at odd times—he needed the laughs, he said, for his survival. He often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry. As a young man he talked of suicide, and as he grew older, he said he saw the world as hard and grim, full of misery, made that way by fates."

Lincoln's obvious sadness drew his associates and many citizens to him. His sad countenance, reflecting his internal depression, doubtless touched the hearts of many voters who came to love and admire the tall, lean, sad-faced man from Illinois.

Although he served but a single term in Congress—he took the unpopular stand of opposing the war with Mexico—he reentered the political arena in 1858, challenging the feisty Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate. He lost the election but won the admiration of many who heard him speak passionately about the country and its future, and he most assuredly caught the attention of national political leaders. A few months later, he was elected president of a country that seemed bent on destroying itself.

As a self-made man, Lincoln had a higher view that was not constricted to his personal success. His American Dream was that all men and women should have equal opportunity to improve their lot. He believed that each American had the right to eat the bread for which he or she toiled. Government's role, he said, was to "elevate the conditions of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life."

Lincoln ran for president in 1860 on a platform that called for slavery's limitation. His victory on that platform was sufficient to prompt the Southern states to start seceding, one by one, as soon as Lincoln was elected. In the ensuing political crisis over secession, Lincoln made it clear that he had neither the power nor the desire to abolish slavery in the seceding states, and that he would happily allow slavery to continue there if it meant saving the Union. But he made it equally clear that he would not agree to any compromise that saved the Union if it meant forcing him to abandon his pledge to restrict slavery's expansion.

Lincoln firmly believed that the idea of a people's democracy was civilization's greatest experiment, and if the Union were not perpetual—if dissatisfied states could leave whenever they chose—the idea of such a democracy would be reduced to an absurdity.

Lincoln's remarkable quality of tolerance has been a constant source of admiration for generations of Americans. His compassion touched every area of his life. He loved children and could not bear to discipline his sons. He often represented clients in court without charge because he sympathized with their situation. In an age of rampant hostility against foreigners, Lincoln welcomed foreigners and encouraged their participation in political and civic institutions. And he was convinced that the best way to deal with political adversaries was to apply a friendly touch, for, he believed, a man's judgment and opinions could best be reached through his heart.

Lincoln knew that slavery was wrong, and when he first saw slaves in chains on a Mississippi riverboat trip he decided he would fight the practice if and when he got the chance. He did not believe that African Americans and whites ought to live as social equals, but he was unwavering in his belief that they had the same rights to live, to prosper, and to improve their lot.

He sympathized with soldiers who fought for a noble cause. He complained when his wife spent money on frivolous things for the White House when young men had no shoes to wear into battle. He loved meeting soldiers, particularly those who had been held prisoner or had endured extreme hardship, and he could often be seen sitting under the shade trees on the White House lawn, talking with the men he admired so much. He pardoned, reprieved, or extended great leniency to hundreds of soldiers who were derelict in their duties, because he believed in giving a man a second chance. Lincoln regularly visited Washington's hospitals, and these visits with wounded soldiers lifted his spirits as much as it did theirs. His favorite unit was the Invalid Corps, made up of men whose wounds rendered them unfit for more battle ser vice (and who already qualified for a pension) but who volunteered for security duty. And he spent more than a quarter of his presidency in residence at the Soldiers' Home in Washington, surrounding himself with disabled veterans.

Lincoln sought to embrace the suffering of others. He mourned those men who lost their lives, and as the death tolls reached unimaginable umbers, his grief became nearly unbearable. He wrote achingly beautiful letters to the mothers of fallen soldiers, with words that could only come from the heart. And he made certain that "the world would not forget" the ultimate sacrifice made by American troops. Amazingly, Lincoln felt no anger toward those Southerners who took up arms against their country; as misguided as they were, he was determined to "let 'em up easy" when the war ended.

Perhaps Lincoln's most questionable judgment during the Civil War was his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. This important plank in the American code of justice gave a person seized and imprisoned the opportunity for a prompt court hearing to determine if he was being held lawfully and whether or not he should be released. It may seem strange that Lincoln, ordinarily dedicated to the preservation of civil rights, should have suspended, even in war time, an important building block in the house of freedom. It is ironic that while waging a war at least in part to extend the reach of liberty, he was willing to reduce liberty in setting aside the writ of habeas corpus. And Lincoln further clouded his stature as a champion of the Bill of Rights when he ordered some newspapers critical of his policies to be closed down.

We admire Lincoln's amazing capacity to live and work with a strong sense of discipline. When asked what made for a successful lawyer, he replied, "work, work, work is the main thing."

He carried this work ethic to the White House. He rose as early as 6:00 or 6:30 each morning and stayed up late, cramming as much work into the day as he could. He ate little and afforded himself few pleasures or moments of relaxation.

Lincoln believed that cold reason and logic could overcome any deficiency and would see him through any problem. He believed that his self-discipline could set an example for the country. He grew into his job as president steadily, day by day, overcoming countless frustrations and obstacles and becoming a great leader.

Lincoln was an extremely intelligent man. Despite his lack of education he was seldom, if ever, intimidated—not in a courtroom, not in a political debate, not as regards any issue he faced as president. He was supremely confident in his ability to analyze and solve any dilemma.

He was a common man who rose to uncommon heights. He had a genuine rapport with the people who elected him, and he was truly appreciative of their friendship and support. He remained true to his own convictions. He focused on his duty to serve his country as president, through turbulent times. He met the responsibility as he met every other challenge in his life: with clear purpose, patience, and compassion.

Lincoln remembered his roots. His real home, he knew, was back on the prairies of Illinois. His heart was there; he was happiest there; had he lived, he would have returned there.

Lincoln became a new kind of American hero who, in his words, stirred the "better angels" of the American people and instilled in them a passion for universal freedom. He was eulogized as one "elevated from the people, without affluence, without position, either social or political, with nothing to commend him but his own heart and sagacious mind." In his greatness he remained one of us. He still is.

[Condensed by Mahendra Meghani form the book Abraham Lincoln]

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