The Greatness of Lincoln
What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and in de pen dence? 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 and unevenly, becoming a clerk, surveyor, businessman, lawyer, legislator, family man, statesman, and national po liti cal 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 demo cratic ideal. Every generation looks to Lincoln for strength, inspiration, and wisdom. We want to know everything about him, 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.
His unquenchable ambition came from within. Certainly he longed to remove himself from his father’s world of drudgery and near- poverty. 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. Perhaps, too, he carried with him a measure of New En gland Yankee–style initiative and character and recognition of individual responsibility. Whatever the source, Lincoln was, in the words of one biographer, “the most ambitious man in the world.”1
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 and perhaps dishonest 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. He was gawky, shambling, and homespun. He lacked conﬁdence, particularly around women, and Ann Rutledge, alleged by some to be his ﬁrst true love, died of typhoid in 1835. In 1832 he lost the ﬁrst po liti cal 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 po liti cal connections into election to Congress in 1846. He shook off his broken heart over the death of Ann Rutledge and in 1842 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 or what he and his associates called “melancholy.” This is a malady that can result in agonizing, even paralyzing, despair. That Lincoln was able to contain, if not conquer, this dread afﬂiction is a huge tribute to his strength and character.
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 and forces of God. “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” His law partner William Herndon said, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”2
In 1841, at the age of thirty- two, Lincoln wrote: “I am now the most miserable man living.” During his days in the Illinois legislature, his friend Robert L. Wilson said that while Lincoln was often humorous and fun-loving, he once took Wilson aside to confess that he was a victim of depression so painful that he didn’t dare carry a knife lest he commit suicide. Lincoln suffered grievously. It is Shenk’s view that this suffering reﬁned and strengthened Lincoln’s greatness.3
Lincoln’s obvious sadness drew his associates and many citizens to him. Given his determination to control his emotional life and to move from challenge to challenge and from battle to battle, it may well be that he converted an apparent handicap into a po liti cal asset. 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.
Various factors could have contributed to Lincoln’s depression: heredity, deaths in the family, business failures, election defeats, even bad weather. His law partner William Herndon reported that Lincoln believed he might have contracted syphilis in 1835 or 1836. If so, this might account for some of his anxiety about marriage. Many of the men in Lincoln’s time had some kind of sexually transmitted disease or feared that they did.4
Despite his struggle with depression, Lincoln took advantage of his opportunities. Although he served but a single term in Congress—he took the unpopu lar stand of opposing the war with Mexico—he reentered the po liti cal 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 po liti cal leaders. Riding a wave of good publicity after a speech at New York’s Cooper Union in February 1860, where he declared that “right makes might,” he sensed that the time was his. His name was bandied about for the Republican presidential nomination while his Democratic opponents bickered, hopelessly splitting their party along North- South lines. Lincoln’s Republican adversaries for the nomination were not as talented and well positioned, and he became the ideal compromise candidate at the party’s convention. 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—a controversial view, given the racial issues that divided the country. 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.”5 When these paths were cleared, he believed, any man could, through diligence and dedication, become “self- made.”
Lincoln was absolutely determined to preserve the Union. He was supremely committed to this goal and he vowed to accomplish it no matter how long or costly the task. At his inauguration in March 1861, he swore a sacred and solemn oath—“registered in Heaven,” he said—“to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” By his lights this meant preserving the Union as well. Yet by the time he became president, Lincoln’s conception of the Union, and of its demo cratic politics, was inseparable from his deep opposition to slavery—and his adamant conviction that slavery should be, as he often said, placed on the road to extinction.
Like his fellow Republicans (and unlike more radical abolitionists), Lincoln believed that if the slave system could be conﬁned to the Southern states, it would eventually be exhausted and face economic doom. And he knew that when the free territories became free states, the national po liti cal balance would shift inexorably toward freedom. Southern slaveholders denied that the federal government had the constitutional power to impose such a limitation on slavery’s extension. Lincoln and the Republicans insisted that the government had that power—and declared that they intended to use it.
Lincoln ran for president in 1860 on a platform that called for slavery’s limitation—no slavery in the territories. 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 po liti cal 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’s Unionism, in other words, was not unconditional with regard to slavery. On the matter of slavery’s expansion, his antislavery beliefs, demo cratic politics, and love of the Union converged, in ways that the secessionists could not abide. And so, as he would put it in his second inaugural address, the war came.
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. No government had ever been assembled, Lincoln reasoned, with a mechanism for its own destruction. In fact, secession was nothing but a ﬁction promulgated by rebels bent on insurrection. He refused to acknowledge that the Confederacy was a legitimate nation, and therefore he would not meet with its ambassadors.
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 or because he simply wanted to help out old friends. In an age of rampant hostility against foreigners, Lincoln refused to become associated with nativist po liti cal parties like the American Party, also known as the “Know- Nothings.” Instead he welcomed foreigners and encouraged their participation in po liti cal and civic institutions. And he was convinced that the best way to deal with po liti cal adversaries was to apply a friendly touch, for, he believed, a man’s judgment and opinions could best be reached through his heart.6
Lincoln knew that slavery was wrong (a belief that he inherited from his father), 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. Though it was limited in scope, Lincoln considered the Emancipation Proclamation his greatest achievement.
He sympathized with soldiers who fought for a noble cause. He complained when his wife spent money on frivolous things—“ﬂubdubs,” he called them—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. He personally reviewed the military commission rec ords of more than three hundred Sioux Indians condemned to die in Minnesota, and despite extreme po liti cal pressure he reduced to thirty- eight the number of men to be executed.7
Lincoln sought to embrace the suffering of others rather than distance himself from it. He mourned those men who lost their lives, and as the death tolls reached unimaginable numbers, 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 at Gettysburg and other places. 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” if and 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, a thoughtful lawyer and one 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.
These apparent violations of the Constitution should be judged against the threat of a bloody civil war that was tearing the nation apart. A horde of Confederate spies and saboteurs were operating within the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
The historian Mark E. Neely Jr. makes it clear that Lincoln himself believed that the arbitrary arrests without beneﬁt of the writ of habeas corpus were essential. In a public letter dated June 12, 1863, to Erastus Corning and others, the president wrote that the time might well come “when I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.”8 Indeed, not only did Lincoln feel little need to justify his actions in the seizure and jailing of those he saw as lawbreakers or threats to his prosecution of the war, but there was little if any public protest from others.
Perhaps the clearest statement of Lincoln’s rationale for his extralegal actions is in his own words: “As commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, in time of war I suppose I have a right to take any mea sure which may best subdue the enemy.” He also contended that the seceding Southern states intended to keep “on foot amongst us a most efﬁcient corps of spies, informers, suppliers and aiders and abettors of their cause” under “cover of Liberty of speech.”9
The foregoing arguments help us understand the extralegal actions Lincoln took during the war, but they do not fully justify his actions. The only oath an American president takes is to uphold the Constitution. This pledge holds not only during times of peace but also in war time. Indeed, the nation may need its constitutional protections even more in times of war than in the less turbulent times of peace. Lincoln was a superb student of the law. He might have agreed with this more sober evaluation in less disruptive times. The Civil War does not stand alone in rationalizing trespasses against civil rights. War seems to pose a danger to civil justice. Consider, for example, President Franklin Roo sevelt’s decision in World War II to take Japanese Americans from their homes and place them in guarded holding camps far from home. This was done despite the fact that none of the people moved from their dwellings demonstrated even a hint of disloyalty toward their adopted country.
We admire Lincoln’s amazing capacity to live and work with a strong sense of discipline. As an attorney he immersed himself in the nuances of the law, giving extra attention to areas in which he had little experience. When asked what made for a successful lawyer, he replied, “work, work, work is the main thing.” When analyzing a legal document or written opinion, he made it a habit to read silently, then aloud to himself, and ﬁnally aloud to his partner. He liked to give himself these repetitive chances to ponder, to analyze, to critique, for he found that in that way the point would become clear in his mind. No man worked harder to make himself a success, evidenced by his practice of making grueling trips around the Illinois legal circuit, twice each year for months at a time. While Lincoln surely loved the freedom of the Illinois prairie roads and enjoyed the camaraderie of the other attorneys and judges he worked with (and, many have surmised, often needed time away from an increasingly irritable spouse), he did not look for shortcuts or make excuses to stay home: he was internally driven to do the work.
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. He decided to take a hands- on approach to running the war, reading volumes on military strategy, tactics, and maneuvers to make up for his lack of military training. His attention to military detail resulted in a new, broader deﬁnition of the president as commander in chief.
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 and that his devotion to the task would ultimately provide for victory. He grew into his job as president steadily, day by day, overcoming countless frustrations and obstacles and becoming a great leader. The historian William Lee Miller wrote that Lincoln “was not born, after all, on Mount Rushmore.”10 He got there through, among other things, hard work.
Lincoln was an extremely intelligent man. He recognized that he was intellectually gifted at an early age; some argue that he even recognized a “towering genius” in himself before he left his father’s home. Despite his lack of education he was seldom, if ever, intimidated—not in a courtroom, not in a po liti cal debate, not as regards any issue he faced as president. Publicly he did not boast, but privately he often told his secretaries, when questioned about the point of view of some po liti cal rivals, “I know more about that than any of them.”11 He seldom read newspaper articles or editorials, ﬁguring the writers were less informed than he. It would be ridiculous, said some who knew him, to call him a modest man. He was supremely conﬁdent in his ability to analyze and solve any dilemma. While Lincoln relied on his cabinet for advice, he made his own decisions.
He understood the issues of the day so well that he found deeper meanings in the war that eluded others. Recognizing that the war was fought initially to preserve the Union, and later to free the slaves, he seamlessly combined the two causes into one.At Gettysburg he communicated to the nation why the tremendous sacriﬁce of thousands of soldiers was worthwhile: the “last full measure of devotion” would bring about a “new birth of freedom,” one as important as the victories of the Revolution, and one that would endure for all time. We still marvel at the majesty and the brilliance of those words.
Lincoln was a patriot who appreciated the historical development of his country. He felt a strong sense of gratitude to the founding fathers, who had risked everything to provide for future generations. Latter-day patriots could best repay that debt, he believed, by sacriﬁcing their time, energy, and lives to ensure that the Union would endure with freedom for all Americans. Lincoln’s hero was George Washington, a man who willingly left his home and family to lead the ﬁght for American inde pen dence against overwhelming odds. Lincoln’s contemporary po liti cal idol was Henry Clay, a probusiness, prodevelopment Kentuckian who, although a slave own er, hoped that slavery would one day end. Lincoln understood that the times called for a new kind of patriot who would ﬁght to preserve America as earnestly as the patriots of the Revolution had fought to establish it.
In a sense, Lincoln campaigned after his 1860 election as he traveled to Washington for his inauguration, appealing to the population’s nationalism and drumming up support for the ﬁght that was sure to come. He raised the ﬂag at Philadelphia’s In de pen dence Hall, and offered some rare ﬁghting words to inﬂame the passions of his audience: “It may be necessary to put the foot down ﬁrmly!” Without question his absolute resolve to preserve the Union was not merely a po liti cal position, but was born from his love of his country.
Perhaps above all else, Americans continue to admire Lincoln’s sense of himself. He was a common man who rose to uncommon heights and produced uncommon accomplishments. 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. It bothered his wife that she was not accepted into Washington society, but he cared not at all that some politicians and newspapermen saw him as an incompetent outsider. He focused on his duty to serve his country as president, and as commander in chief, through turbulent times. He did not shirk that responsibility—as, certainly, his pre de ces sor James Buchanan had done. 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. But in the vigor of his youth and prime he worked to fulﬁll his enormous potential, and in doing so he saved the Union from destruction and set the stage for the end of slavery.
For all his qualities, Abraham Lincoln was, of course, imperfect. He could be moody and sullen, stubborn and insensitive. Sometimes his melancholy took over, and when it did he had to battle his way through, usually alone. He kept his feelings to himself, exasperating those who loved him. Although understandable, his lifting of the right to habeas corpus and closing down several critical newspapers were at least questionable actions. But Americans, perhaps, do not want perfect heroes. We look instead for imperfect individuals who can overcome their inadequacies and accomplish great things.
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 po liti cal, with nothing to commend him but his own heart and sagacious mind.”12 In his greatness he remained one of us. He still is.
Copyright © 2008 George S. McGovern