I am slowly making my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, as I have a bunch of books going. I also just watched the movie Lincoln for the third time last night. Before that I watched Ken Burn’s The Civil War series. The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I like him. Normally I hate questions like if you could go to dinner with anyone living or dead, who would you choose? I usually feel put on the spot and there are a million ways you could answer that anyway, depending on the conditions. It’s like someone asking you what your favorite color is. Well, I like blue, but depending on the context I might also like…
But I have to admit if I were forced to answer a question like that right now I think I would have to say Lincoln. Unlike many people, the more he is taking off of a pedestal, the more he is humanized, the more unbelievably likable he is. Here are five reasons, out of many that I could have picked, to explain why I find Lincoln so compelling:
1. He was extremely interested in the world. This is someone that had almost no formal education. However, he would consistently try to push himself to learn more. Books were his companions. He loved books and could recite passages from literature and poetry by memory. He wanted to learn complex geometry at one point. He simply got a book out, read it, practiced it, and learned it on his own. Usually the myth of the self-made man is bullshit, as most people have someone that helps them along the way, were born in favorable circumstances, etc. However, Lincoln was about as close to this archetype as possible. He was also interested in people and loved to sit around late into the night talking with people about an incredibly wide range of topics. He was simply someone that loved to learn, push himself, and acquire new skills.
2. He was humble in victory and gracious in defeat. While Lincoln was confident in himself, he was never egotistical. When he would win a case as a lawyer or a political victory, he was quick to give credit to others around him, and he never lorded his victories over his opponents. When he lost, even when he was smeared by political opponents, Lincoln was quick to forgive. He was also quick to empathize with others, he tried to understand them, so that he never took it personally when he was attacked. This was crucial to why he was successful, as he never let petty political rivalries get in the way of his career.
3. He was good natured. I cannot think of one story where Lincoln was ever cruel to anyone. And even though he suffered at times from melancholia, he always told funny stories and tried to put others at ease. He would make himself the butt of a joke if it could make people smile and make them comfortable.
4. He was not afraid to change his position if new facts emerged. If a problem were to arise, Lincoln tried to learn as much about it as he could, often reading late into the night, and would try to reach a conclusion based on the facts. When he was wrong, which wasn’t much, he would admit it and try to learn from it. He rarely let preconceived notions of how he viewed the world get in the way of dealing with whatever facts were in front of him.
5. He was always able to overcome personal setbacks and grief. He lost the first election that he was in. When he got his first big case he was snubbed and let go by the two more educated attorneys that were on it. Instead of going home mad, he stayed in the audience to try and learn as much about the law as possible. The first person he was ever in love with died. Two of his children died during his lifetime, one while he was in the White House. Yet time after time, while being highly skeptical of an afterlife, and full of tremendous grief, he pushed on, able to overcome his own grief to do things for the good of others. Part of the reason he was a great man wasn’t because he always succeeded. In fast he faced several serious failures and personal setbacks. He was a great man because he pushed on in the face of these.
Although I am only about halfway through Goodwin’s book, I can’t recommend it enough. Spending time with Lincoln is a true pleasure. The book will teach one an incredible amount about American History. Also, by examining Lincoln, one can learn a lot about how one should try to live.