February 11, 2011

Lessons from Lincoln on His Birthday

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As the birthday of President Lincoln falls on Saturday, it is fitting and proper to pause and reflect upon some of his most important lessons. “Father Abraham,” as the troops he commanded affectionately called him, still has much wisdom to share with us.

Keep an open mind. Though firm in his convictions, Lincoln felt it important that he always listen to divergent opinions. To that end, the president filled his cabinet with some of his greatest Republican rivals for the 1860 nomination, including the interminably bitter Salmon Chase as Treasury Secretary and William Seward (of Seward’s folly) as Secretary of State. Originally, Lincoln planned to suffocate slavery by not allowing it to spread west; he would leave the institution alone where it already existed. And should all slaves be free, Lincoln thought it reasonable that they be sent back to Africa, as he could not imagine whites and blacks living together as equals.

But as the war drew to a close, he was speaking triumphantly of black suffrage from the window of the White House, causing John Wilkes Booth, who was in the crowd, to turn to his friend and retort: “I’ll put him through.” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, penned by the man himself, was the product of hours upon hours spent in tortuous thought. (He was the last of our presidents to write all his own speeches, as well.) Before he signed it, Lincoln took a few minutes to steady his hand. He wanted to be sure that posterity knew he meant every word.

Keep an eye on the long term. Lincoln insisted on investing in America’s future, even as the nation was marred by war. He demanded construction of the Capitol Building continue. He secured congressional funds for bridges and great interstate railroads that helped foster economic growth and competition. And he ensured that regular elections were held, even as some suggested they be called off because of the ongoing violence. Government of the people, by the people was too enduring a concern of Lincoln’s for him to sacrifice it for power’s sake. That said, Lincoln was a shrewd politician, and he managed his own reelection landslide over his adversary and former general, McClellan.

Take it easy. Lincoln took the war seriously and personally. Many of his friends died as a result of his actions. Indeed, much of Mary’s family fought for the South, which helped contribute to her madness. The war aged Lincoln a lifetime in just over one term, as the sequenced photographs illustrate. (He was also the most photographed president of the 19th century.)

Yet Lincoln felt that despite all the hardships, there was still much to be thankful for: friends, family, and the arts especially. After long days prodding his generals into action, he stayed up late talking with his new friend Seward, though, unlike Seward, Lincoln never drank nor smoked. Lincoln went to the theatre almost every night to gain some respite from the war. His favorite play was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and he loved to quote it from memory to whoever would listen. Lincoln would tell so many jokes sometimes that critics called him an incompetent, while friends and allies took solace in their president’s great humor. Most importantly, Lincoln understood that when times are hard, hard work is called for, but we ought never lose sight of the good fortune with which we here on earth are blessed. Amen.

Original Author: Jason Wasser