Abraham Lincoln. I’m going to attempt to honor him here, on the 153rd anniversary of his death. This is a difficult feat because I’m going to try to summarize over 48 hours of my listening to a couple of Abraham Lincoln audiobooks. The first audiobook I listened to was Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The other was The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner.
I LOVE Abraham Lincoln SO MUCH. I read my first Abraham Lincoln biography when I was seven or eight years old. It was a book that helped form my resilience: a little gem called The Power of Trying Again. I will try to summarize a little of what I have learned divided into four sections: the first three of which are some of his defining attributes: resilience, intelligence and humility; the last is Lincoln and American slavery.
Abraham Lincoln definitely had to have resilience. He experienced so much hardship throughout his life, from the death of his mother at a very early age, to the death of a girlfriend later on, the death of his sister, and the death of two of his children. Lincoln was an avid reader and learner, and his father belittled these traits and did not understand his son, which hurt Lincoln in a very fundamental way. It is said that Lincoln very likely suffered clinical depression. Whether or not that is true, we do know that he had seriously contemplated suicide at one point in his life.
He grew up in a home that did not value education. Lincoln had to go up against so much more to become literate, to acquire books and reading materials to study, to find time to do so, and to keep at it. In his early life, he was known to borrow books from anyone who would lend them. At one time, a book he borrowed became destroyed because of rain. He had to work several days to pay off the person who had lent him that book. At the age of 23, he became a lawyer because of his own earnest studying of borrowed law books.
Lincoln only served one term in the Senate, being replaced by his political rival, Stephen Douglas. He tried to regain his seat again in 1857, only to be defeated. When he set his sights higher to becoming president, he also faced Douglas – a man who had beat him several times. A lifetime of adversity and of overcoming challenges amidst overwhelming odds had prepared him for this. He managed to win the presidency by the skin of his teeth.
A large part of why Abraham Lincoln was able to secure the Republican nomination for president and win was his intelligence. Abraham Lincoln was not only book smart, but he also had an incredible knack for reading people. He was able to empathize, understand and know people on both a personal level, and to perceive how they worked in groups. As a Republican, Lincoln was politically moderate to a fault. Though he may have felt more radical in his personal convictions, he managed to perfectly straddle the middle line politically. After speaking with him, radical abolitionists would believe he was on their side. The same could be said of more conservative constituents. He was able to navigate these turbulent and murky political waters with integrity and finesse.
Abraham Lincoln had always felt that slavery was morally wrong. As much as he may have wanted to use his executive power to dispense with the institution immediately, he would not have been nominated for president if he would have expressed these sentiments, and he would not have swayed public opinion to abolitionist ideals if he would have worked thus forcefully. In order to do the good he needed to for the country and the union, he was intelligent enough to realize that he could lead us to the higher ground by taking the middle ground.
As president of the United States, he could have believed that he had mastered the knowledge that was necessary to assume such a position. However, he never stopped learning and was almost constantly educating himself. He was addicted to the written word. He voraciously read newspapers. He was intimately familiar with the Bible and Shakespeare. He was able to craft speeches that were as brief as they were poignant. In fact, when he gave his now-famous Gettysburg address, which was only 10 sentences long, Lincoln so entirely stunned his audience, that they didn’t applaud until well after he was seated. He first thought that his speech must have bombed! The first speaker at Gettysburg delivered an hours long speech, and when Lincoln came after him with his simple address, the audience couldn’t believe that was it!
A hallmark of Abraham Lincoln’s personality is his humility. When I say humility, I mean his ability to constantly learn and evolve. He believed that he could always improve with the help of others, no matter how much lower (or higher) in status and differing in opinion. In fact, he grew his famous beard because of a letter that a 10-year-old girl had written to him saying that he would look much more distinguished with one!
Another characteristic of Lincoln’s humble nature was his ability to make anyone feel comfortable and his equal while around him. Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and former slave, once said of Lincoln that no other white person had ever treated him as they would any other human being like Lincoln did. Frederick Douglass was in close association with many other white people, including radical abolitionists who believed with their entire souls that slavery was wrong. Even those abolitionists didn’t treat Frederick Douglass with the respect and humanity that Lincoln did.
He had the ability to change his beliefs and attitudes, and he changed them so much from the beginning of his presidency until his death. For example, before he was nominated for president, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he agreed with Douglas that black people shouldn’t be citizens and therefore should not have any civil rights. As for the abolition of slavery, while Lincoln was for it always, he was for compensated slavery, gradual abolition and colonization. Compensated slavery meant that the slaveowners would be paid for their slaves as they freed them. Gradual abolition, which is exactly as it sounds, would be less of a shock to the country and make it easier to transition into freedom. At least, that was his reasoning. Colonization was the idea that after abolition, former slaves would be sent back to Africa or to other colonies in South America or the Caribbean. As we can clearly see, these ideas failed because of his ability to see that these beliefs were wrong.
It is kind of difficult to understand this point of American history looking back on it from the 21st century. In the mid-19th century, it was perfectly acceptable to OWN other people. It boggles my mind that humans could do that and believe that they were still good people. But they did. Also, looking back, it’s clear to see that the Civil War was about one thing: slavery. Back then, they didn’t see it as such. At the beginning of the war, Lincoln would have reconciled with the seceded states without abolishing slavery.
What really turned the tide of the war – and made it an absolute necessity for the total abolishment of slavery in the United States – was the enlistment of black soldiers, both consisting of freedmen and slaves. Lincoln issued a preemptive Emancipation Proclamation based on Union war participation. This was radical at the time, because the fugitive slave act was still technically on the books, and this wartime necessity superseded the legality of that act. (The fugitive slave act essentially said that any slaves who escaped from slave states into non-slave states must be returned to their owners by the non-slave states.) However, this wartime Emancipation Proclamation allowed escaped slaves their freedom if they enlisted, and that after the war, their families would be freed.
When Lincoln saw the bravery, courageousness and patriotism of these black soldiers, he knew that he couldn’t reunite with the seceded states only to send these patriots back into forced servitude. Lincoln worked very hard to gain the trust of these black soldiers, their commanders, and their recruiters. When it was discovered that black prisoners of war were mistreated, executed, or sold back into slavery, Lincoln made it clear to the Confederacy that for every black soldier that any of these things happened to, he would do the same to Confederate prisoners of war (with indentured hard labor in place of slavery). At the beginning of the war, black soldiers were paid a little more than half as much as white soldiers. Lincoln eventually closed this wage gap, paying black soldiers retroactively for their service.
After the Union soldiers finally took Richmond, Virginia, the Civil War was pretty much over. The day after the Union gained control of Richmond, Lincoln visited the city. Freed slaves were celebrating their freedom in the streets. When they saw Lincoln, he was greeted with cries of jubilation as they fell down on their knees to nearly worship him, because they were so grateful. The white former slaveowners were absolutely flabbergasted that their slaves would act in such a manner. These slaveowners actually believed that their slaves loved serving them and were content and happy as slaves. That is how clueless they were.
Robert E Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. Lincoln was assassinated five days later, dying the next day on April 15, 1865. Lincoln was already heavy into wartime reconstruction, and was looking forward to the future of the country with excitement and hope. It’s true that nobody understood what to do with freed slaves during that time, and it was very confusing for many people, especially those in charge. However, with Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson was everything that Lincoln was not. (Except for loyal to the Union.) Johnson was racist, believed he was always right about everything, never learned from anyone, and never changed his mind about anything. The Republican heavy Congress tried to pass civil rights acts and secure the future for black citizens. Johnson vetoed every single helpful piece of legislation. Johnson was impeached and narrowly escaped conviction by one vote. It’s difficult to say whether or not black citizens would’ve had to endure the segregation and civil rights violations of the next 100 years if Lincoln had been allowed to finish his term. Lincoln had a way of influencing public opinion. His savvy as a politician most definitely would have made it easier to be a black citizen.
He will always be my favorite president. He embodied so many virtues that were absolutely necessary for the president during this time in our history. America is a very weird country. Right now, a reality star is our president. In many ways, he is the polar opposite of Lincoln. Lincoln was born in a cabin, a pauper, never received a formal education and had to work strenuously and continuously for everything that he received. In the cabinet, he didn’t appoint his friends and those he knew to positions of power. He appointed experts who were his former rivals. For his second vice president, he didn’t go with a yes-man who would toe the line; he went with someone who would challenge him and who would help to unite the broken country. He was a patriot, an intelligent man of integrity and resiliency. I pray that our next president can be someone who embodies a fraction of Lincoln’s traits, understanding and work ethic.