He grew up poor and had bouts of depression. On one occasion his mood grew so dark that friends worried that he would kill himself. He was a back woodsy kind of man sho always appeared to be a bit rumpled compared to his more polished peers. He was thought by some to be a homely fellow whose gangly appearance made him seem awkward. Few thought he had a chance against his better educated, more refined and admired competition but somehow he earned the nomination of his Republican party to run for President of the United States. In a greatly divided race he won by a razor thin margin in a time of great anxiety for the nation.
His name was Abraham Lincoln and he decided to bring disparate forces together by assembling a cabinet composed of the brightest and best of his political rivals. It turned out to be a master stroke that contributed greatly to saving the union when the country split in two. He understood human nature and managerial skills like few who have ever held that office. Knowing that he would never be able to lead the country by himself he created a team of expertise that kept things running while he directed a war.
Few would have thought of such a thing. They might have surrounded themselves by “yes” men who fawned over his every suggestion. Instead Lincoln often deferred to ideas that would never have crossed his mind when he realized how effective they would be. He also made sure that the person or persons responsible would get the credit and attaboys they deserved. His uncanny abilities and unflagging devotion to the country ensured that our union would hold. His inspirational speeches only cemented the deal.
The story of Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as president is remarkable on every level. For a man with tendencies toward fragile darkness he maintained a national optimism and strength. Not only was he worn down by the loss of life and property from the war but also by personal tragedies that took a favorite son and drove his wife into a near state of madness. He understood that maintaining a determined course to free the nation of the stain of slavery while holding the government together made him a target for violence and even murder. Nonetheless the good of the people was more important to him than his personal issues.
We have had many good presidents and some of them have even been beyond great, but none of them ever faced the total destruction and dissolution of our country. While initially appeared to be an odd choice for our Chief Executive it is clear in retrospect that he was exactly the man that we needed at the moment. It is uncertain that anyone else would have had the fortitude to do what was right while brooking no quarter to the idea of a permanent state of conflicting governments. He understand exactly what was at stake and held firm until victory was assured.
Once the war was over he was open to reconciliation and healing but he also wanted a smooth transition of the former slaves into society. He hoped desperately to heal the wounds that had turned brother against brother and led to the greatest wartime loss of life the United States would ever see. Neither he nor those who supported him had any idea that he would not live to see the reconstruction of the nation because the hatred that had stalked the country was still very much alive in the hands of an assassin and his accomplices.
I cannot even view the Lincoln memorial without becoming emotional. It is a monument to all that is best in humans. Lincoln was a very imperfect man who found extraordinary courage in a moment when our country most needed it. He was not bound by personal pride or gain or reputation but the purest of all motives. He was fighting to save a nation that he believed deserved to be better than it had been. He was determined to right the wrongs of a century of denial. He somehow held himself together and admitted and corrected his mistakes until he ultimately got it right. Few in our history have ever come close to exemplifying his greatness.
I sense that Abraham Lincoln would be disturbed by what he sees happening in the United States of today even as he would recognize the warning signs. I suppose it would bother him to witness the rise in overt racism and the violence that has burst forth on the streets of America. Surely he would wonder why our military bases are named after Confederate generals rather than the brave warriors for the Union army. He must likely be confused by the statues of treasonous secessionists lining the streets and government buildings of some parts of the country. I suspect that he would warn us to be wary of those who would incite divisions and violence and he would remember with great pain what it was like the last time our Capitol had to be protected from its own citizens.
How I wish that we would all think back to the greatest of our country’s leaders and heed the lessons that we should have learned from his time in office. His words echo through the ages and are as relevant today as they were more than one hundred fifty years ago. Here are a few of my favorites from my all time favorite president:
You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the hours of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.