Five Reasons Lincoln Was a Great Man


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.

Politics and Empathy

Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  It is about Lincoln and his cabinet.  The book is endlessly fascinating.  I am only about a tenth of the way through and already I have learned an incredible amount about this country.  I read the following passage today, about Lincoln’s first major anti-slavery speech:

Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy.  More than a decade earlier, he had employed a similar approach when he advised temperance advocates to refrain from denouncing drinkers in “thundering tones of anathema and denunciation,” for denunciation would inevitably be me with denunciation, “crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema.”  In a passage directed at abolitionists as well as temperance reformers, he had observed that it was the nature of man, when told that he should be “shunned and despised,” and condemned as a the author “of all the vice and misery and crime in the land,” to retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.”

Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,” the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker  or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.  Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.”  In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”  This, he concluded, was the only road to victory – to that glorious day “when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.”

It is a hard thing to do, to change people’s minds.  Lincoln was such a great leader and was able to get so much done, precisely because he had empathy, the ability to put himself in other people’s shoes, even those he vehemently disagreed with.

Politics is a tricky thing, because you need people that are going to tell the truth no matter who it offends, to get the ball rolling a lot of the times.  Yet you also need people that can reach out and change people’s minds.  It’s a hard thing to know when to do what.

In George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, the second half of the book is his argument for socialism.  However, it is also a diatribe against socialists, because he feels that they are going about their cause completely wrong.  Even though he agrees with them politically, he feels that most of the socialists of that time are wrong in the way they approach people.  Orwell spent a lot of time with the working class in England, especially in the mining towns.  Orwell felt that if you wanted to bring the common man over to the cause of socialism you couldn’t do things like attack their religion, something that many people need to make sense of the world.  He felt that in order to influence people one needed to reach them where they were at.

I think different forms of communication require different kinds of tools.  If someone is a songwriter, for instance, you only have so many lines to get across an idea.  Music is also based on emotion.  I think because of this it is a form that is better suited to going all in and conveying something with passion.

However, politicians need to do the hard work of actually leading people.  I think they have to have more empathy in their approach.  Having empathy and trying to understand others is not to be confused with being wishy-washy, as so many politicians are.  I think one can take the moral high ground and at the same time extend an olive branch out to those that disagree.  Unfortunately we have very few leaders these days that are able to do both at the same time.

P.S. Although we all know prohibition was a nightmare and a mistake, one needs to understand how much people used to drink to understand, in part, the temperance movement.  Read up on it as it is a pretty good laugh.  I was just reading a passage in the above book where Senators in our government were described as being, “beastly drunk.”

The Civil War and Movies

As any of you that have been reading along know, the last two weeks I have been interested in the Civil War.  Last night I watched Lincoln.  It was the second time I have seen it and it is really an extraordinary film.  Although there are a few scenes that seem a little too symbolic, and because of this aren’t believable as reality, overall it is really well done.  Maybe its best attribute is it really makes one think about the nature of politics.

Anyway, I wanted to watch another movie on that time period tonight.  I was doing an internet search and the truth is there are very few excellent movies that deal in that historical period.  I find that very strange.  Is that because we are afraid of really exploring a war in which half of the country was on the wrong side of justice?  Is it just that it is too long ago and, unlike World War II and Vietnam, we are too far removed from it?

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that in order to understand modern America, one must be able to have some understanding of what happened during that time period.  Works of drama are more accessible than most history.  Good dramatizations can also often bring out certain truths, even if they contains slight elements of fiction, in ways that documentaries or even history books cannot.  They can connect people emotionally to something they might not otherwise understand or be interested in.