I finally made it to the end of A Lincoln, by Ronald White, and I’m about halfway through Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. It seems like a good time to think more about Lincoln. He’s near the heart of the American civil religion (along with Washington, the Constitution, and the flag). And like us with our times of many troubles (wars, financial crisis, global warming, extinction of many species, etc.), he faced enormous challenges. In 1860, the year of he was elected president, slavery looked like a problem that that had no imagineable tolerable solution. In 1865 it was (at least in legal terms) over.
It’s hard to spend time with a Lincoln biography without feeling awed and inspired. We used to teach our fifth graders a few bumper sticker-size Lincoln facts, which have been lodged in my head since I was a kid. The log cabin. The rail splitter. The love of reading and learning. The frontier lawyer. Honest Abe. Political opponent of slavery. Savior of the union. The kid’s version is simplified, of course, but the bumper stickers aren’t seriously misleading.
Yet many of his contemporaries thought him an uncouth backwoods fellow. Apparently he had a high, annoying voice, dressed poorly, and was considered more-than-usually ugly. His early career was a checkered effort to make ends meet in frontier towns, and he experienced job loss, unemployment, bankruptcy, and uncertain prospects. He was reasonably successful as a lawyer, but he didn’t make a lot of money. As a new president, he was in way over his head, and he made many costly mistakes. He had views on race and other subjects that seem today retrograde. He was not a saint.
Even so, he continues to inspire us. His willingness to confront long odds and to reach for the best and highest are still moving. He was a man of many virtues. There are two that I take as as exemplary — honesty and intellectual curiosity.
Lincoln made sure that the individuals he dealt with were fairly treated even when it was to his disadvantage. I believe his reputation for exceptional honesty was a critical factor to his success. He won authority because people believed he was honest, that he was not corrupt, and that he would do what he believed in good faith was the right thing.
Lincoln was also unusual in his passion for learning. As a boy growing up on homestead in the frontier, Linconln got almost no formal schooling. He attended school for less than 12 months over his lifetime. How did he get so smart? Simple: he read omniverously. (Apparently he did most of it out loud, which must have been annoying at times.) He believed it was possible to transform himself, to become better. His story reminds us of how much a single human can achieve.