Greatness takes many forms. It is typically easy to recognize and quantify, and we celebrate those who achieve such heights. Roger Federer's fifteen grand slam titles, for instance. Neal Armstrong walking on the moon. Warren Buffett's wealth and sagacity. Dealin' Doug's hairpiece.
But rarely do we find greatness in a place that matters most, embodied in a person whose values, vitality, and vision become intertwined indistinguishably with our own identity, our own survival. These most rare people represent a near perfect incarnation of our highest ideals. There are probably only a handful of them in the history of the world--great men and women who perform their greatest acts on the grandest, most critical stages--and unfortunately, they tend to be assassinated. But their greatness doesn't fade with time, but rather grows, and we justly carve their faces onto mountains, build monuments to them in the nation's Capital, or write them into scripture.
At the very top of my list of great ones, behind only Jesus Christ and the Buddha, is Abraham Lincoln. I just finished Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and my mind is overflowing with gratitude and admiration for the backwoods prairie lawyer who freed the slaves and saved the Union.
The book is tirelessly researched, referenced, and comprehensive in its scope, nearly eight hundred pages long, and honestly I have so many thoughts floating in my mind about Lincoln that I don't even know where to begin. I think I'll just start by naming, in no particular order, attributes that Lincoln evinced and why they are so resonant with me.
- Magnanimity: this is, to me, his overarching and most remarkable character trait. He had such a generosity of spirit about him that he was able, nearly always, to set aside petty, selfish concerns and do what was best for the greater good. Time and time again, he promoted talented men who had personally insulted, slandered, betrayed, and undermined him to positions of responsibility and trust. In kind, these men proved their worth, and eventually became trusted, diligent advisors, indispensible to the Union's war effort. This is most evident in Lincoln's relationship with Henry Seward, the man he defeated for the Republican nomination in 1860. Initially embittered and aghast that he had been defeated by a non-deserving hick, Seward went on to become Lincoln's most trusted advisor, most able stateseman, and his closest friend. Likewise was Lincoln's relationship with Edwin Stanton, the lawyer who humiliated Lincoln at a trial in 1858 but went on to become his irascible, indefatigable, and ingenious Secretary of War, his second closest advisor and friend. There are dozens of other examples, not least of which was Lincoln's liberal and forgiving attitude towards the South and Reconstruction, which he was never able to implement due to his assassination.
- Strength of purpose / Confidence tempered with humility: Lincoln's magnaninity sprung from his rock-solid, healthy self-confidence, a powerful ego tempered to perfection with humility. Where his confidence sprung from is anybody's guess. His mother died when he was young, and he had virtually no formal education. He was tall and physically powerful , but awkward and not good-looking. He endeared people to himself with humor and meekness, but was not in any way socially dynamic. No person had any reason to believe that someone of his background and education could become President, rid the nation of its original sin of slaverly, or save the Union. But somewhere inside Lincoln's mind and heart, he was aware of his own powerful mental and moral faculties, and came to believe in his own essential goodness and importance. That accurate self-awareness and internal fortitude propelled him into election after election, through defeat after defeat, and eventually self-actualized during his presidency and within the crucible of the Civil War, when he put all his skills to the maximum test and maximum utility.
- Courage: doing the right thing for the right reasons in the face of tremendous adversity and personal (or political) danger was Lincoln's hallmark.
- Wisdom: he possessed a folksy wisdom. Similar to Jesus and his parables, he had an intrinsic gift to relate anecdotes--usually humorous--that would lucidly define a principle or succinctly illustrate a complicated argument. It's probably hard for us to completely understand the social and political environment in which his reasoning was required. How do you reason with a society that has been attempting to justify enslavement of other human beings for hundreds of years, and that is correctly wary of the extinction of their way of life should slavery be abolished? Lincoln did it--if not successfully--then at least convincingly.
- Humor: he was a funny man, consistently conjuring humor to rouse the spirits of those around him, and even more so to lighten the impossible sorrows that burdened his own shoulders. He was always self-deprecating, in great contrast to most of the preening politicians of his time. Here's a favorite Lincoln anecdote that he once relayed:A man encountered Lincoln in the woods. Lincoln saw that the man was carrying a rifle, and tried to charm him. "How do you, sir" he asked.The man gave a half smile but said, "Friend, I have no quarrel with you, but you must now prepare to die, for I must shoot you, for I have vowed if I ever encountered a man who is uglier than myself, I would kill him."Lincoln ripped open his shirt and exclaimed, "Sir then fire away directly for my heart, for if I am uglier than you, I do not want to live!"
- Eloquence: derided by the self-important bloviators of his time as too plainspoken and simple-minded, he nevertheless wrote and uttered some of the most articulate, logical, poetic, and essential words in national and world history. At Gettysburg in November of 1863, following a three hour speech by the preceding verbose speaker, Lincoln arose and gave an address that was shocking in its brevity--less than three minutes. The gathered crowd could scarcely believe it as he folded his paper and sat down. Some didn't even know he had started yet, much less finished. Pundits of the time ridiculed him or professed offense at the breach of proper etiquette. But as we all know, the words he spoke are among the most important, concise, and resonant words of all time. He would go on to top that speech (in my opinion) with his second inaugural address 18 months later as the war drew to a close.
Weeks before his assassination, he had a portentous dream foreshadowing his own death. But he was at peace with that. He had said many times that should he die but the Union be saved, he would die a happy man. Around that same time, he was on a ship sailing toward Virginia when a terrible squall rattled the rest of the passengers and crew. Lincoln emerged hours later from the hull of the ship, stretching his arms after having slept peacefully through the storm. Just five days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomatox, John Wilkes Booth put a bullet in Lincoln's head. It was the night of April 14th, 1865, Good Friday.
The parallels to Christ are eery and unmistakable. Forgive me if my praise of Lincoln borders on being reverential. Certainly, he was only a man, in full possession of human flaws. But it is not hard to see the hand of divinity working in his life. raising him up from obscurity, placing him in position to be savior of our fledgling republic.
Not everyone we call great deserves the honor. But Abraham Lincoln does, a reminder of the greatness of our nation, the greatness of the human spirit, and the greatness we each harbor within ourselves.