Abraham Lincoln frequently tops the list of rankings of US Presidents, as ranked by historians. Or even in a Gallup poll (#1 in one poll, #2 in the next).
Why? Well let me tell you a story about Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and spent formative years on a farm not far from the Cumberland Trail between Nashville and Louisville. Travelers moving to Indiana or further would often stay for the night at the Lincoln farm, meaning that every night there was a new story to hear, and an old story to share. There were preachers and merchants and farmers and civil servants, each enriching his perspective on life, on business, on matters of law and love and loss and romance. It made him wise beyond his years.
When he was but nine years old, his beloved mother died of milk sickness.When he was a teen, his sister died in childbirth. When he was 26, his true love and constant companion died of Typhoid fever. He often sought refuge from a dreary existence by devouring books, regardless of whether he was escaping a sense of loss, or being denied formal schooling, or just a lack of imagination from those around him in his frontier existence. He loved the classics, and had a special affinity for the bible and Shakespeare. And he even wrote a mournful poem, part of which is captured on page 53 of “A Team of Rivals“, by Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin:
I hear the loved survivors tell,
How naught from death could save,
Till every sound appeared a knell,
And every spot a grave.
Within three years of the passing of his love, Lincoln had moved to Springfield Illinois with intent to start anew and experiment as a lawyer. He had built a large social circle of civic minded people who all gathered at the general store of his best friend, and people came to hear him tell stories, share opinions, and talk philosophy and politics. And he even ran for the state legislature as a Whig, on the platform of local infrastructure improvements.
Lincoln had worked on a river flatboat. He had known the challenges of bringing one’s crops to market on terrible roads. Goodwin writes, “Primitive roads, clogged waterways, lack of rail connections, inadequate schools – such were not merely issues to Lincoln, but hurdles he had worked all his life to overcome in order to earn an ampler share of freedom.” (pg 90) While he didn’t win his first election he did win four successive two year terms after that as a member of the Illinois state legislature.
There are a great many reasons why presidential historians consistently rank Lincoln the highest or at least in the top three. Some ask what he did to be admired so, and in some ways, it is a valid question – not because Lincoln gave us cause to question him, but rather, because people should always know the answer to what elevated this able man of humble beginnings to be perhaps the greatest American that ever lived.
Some might say that he won the Civil War, and while they have a point, they often dont know the background well enough to know just how divisive and paralyzing the issue of Slavery was, and thus how impossible it seemed to settle the matter in courts or in Congress. Some might say Lincoln was great for freeing the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation, leaving out the reality that it did not affect slaves in the border states of MO, KY, WV, MD or DE, or that it was actually the 13th Amendment that ended the practice of Slavery.
Everyone does know, however, that the Gettysburg address was one of the greatest speeches in American history. And if they perchance did know that it set the moral framework for why the war was to be won, and why the Union must endure, then, they might say, with a rhetorical flare, that Lincoln set America on a path forward celebrating its roots in Liberty and Justice to not only win the war, but to win the peace and cementing this ‘experimental’ country by making her aspire to live ever more closer to her founding virtues and principles.
Or in simpler language, they may say that he led America to become a stronger version of herself by reminding everyone who Americans are and what they stand for.
In truth, Americans needed reminding. Mark Twain called these times the Gilded age. Sure, in some ways it was covered with gold. But because it was gilded and not golden, the layers underneath were always fake.
The issue of Slavery was a fault line that ran though out the whole society. Kansas was known as ‘bleeding Kansas‘ from all of the violence that resulted after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Southern states insisted that northern states respect their property laws by enacting (and enforcing) Fugitive Slave Act – a classic case of Federal vs Local legislative contests that swung back and forth depending on who was in power and how a judge or the Supreme Court ruled. Slavery advocates hated abolitionists, and abolitionists returned the favor with zeal. Everyone had to pick a side.
Northern abolitionists like Frederick Douglass were smelling more than blood by the beginning of 1865. They had met with Lincoln in the Whitehouse and discussed the President’s views on Slavery, on the South, on the terrible sacrifices that had been paid to get this far, and the costs of finishing the work they had before them. They had complained that it took so very long for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (late 1862, not to be effective until 1863), and why he wasn’t using more direct methods to aggressively advance the Amendment to end Slavery.
By February 1865, when Lincoln traveled south on a boat deep into Virginia, they smelled more than blood. They smelled victory, and the spoils that go with it. Sherman had marched all the way to Atlanta, and the greatest city in the Confederacy lay smoking in ruins, as well as Sherman’s path to and from the sea. The naval blockade had dragged on for years and deprived the Confederacy of hard currency from exports, and hyperinflation was rampant. Union ships patrolled the mighty Mississippi, and rail lines were few. Worse yet, great General Robert E. Lee had not seen victory since before Gettysburg. And while Ulysses S Grant had not been able to use his manpower and materiel advantages to a decisive victory, everyone sensed it would be over if Generals Lee and Johnston proved unable to combine their forces to fight Grant.
In late March, Lincoln steamed south on the River Queen, down the Chesapeake and up the James River to take some air, be near the front (as he was wont to do) and to meet with both Sherman and Grant in person to communicate his orders. And they were to offer extremely generous and liberal terms of surrender to their counterparts. Lincoln made it clear that all he wanted was for the opposing armies to leave the field of battle, whereupon the soldiers of the South would go back to their farms and their shops, with no retaliation or retribution. “Let them have their horses to plow with, and, if you like, their guns to shoot crows with.” (pg 713) Essentially, he asked the Union troops to celebrate that the war was over, but not in victory, as now the vanquished warriors on the other side were once again their brothers.
General Sherman recalled a decade later of Lincoln, “Of all the men I ever me, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness combined with goodness than any other.” (also pg 713) Sherman left that meeting on March 28, 1865. General Lee surrendered two weeks later. Abraham Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 and died hours later.
In this story of Lincoln, we see a man who knew what it was like to make a living with one’s hands, sweating in the sun, who also combined intelligence and aplomb with self study and inquiry to lead the greatest nation in its time of greatest crisis and rise above it. In the book, there are constant references to Lincoln’s journey to the front lines, to see the men first hand and let them know he was unafraid to be with them. And we see a leader who was deeply pained by the casualties that lay rotting in the battlefields – be they Union or rebel. We see a leader who hoped to minimize casualties on both sides as every man who died was one who would not be a member of the once again United States of America.
In his first inaugural address, he extolled the South not to secede; He insisted that he did not believe he had the power to eliminate Slavery and he lacked the inclination to even try. But he refused to let them dis-unite, to the point of provoking them to declaring war since they insisted on secession, and then prosecuting that war to its ultimate conclusion but never, ever losing sight of the desire to bring those states, those lands, those peoples, those societies back into the great American experiment of self-governance.
He did not want to win by crushing the South. He wanted to re-unite with the South. Where he had to defeat them to stop them from secession, well, so be it. But he would not defeat them any more than they proved necessary. For in victory, he preserved the Union and their union, and they were once again brothers.
And there it is. Lincoln knew that united we were all stronger. He prosecuted the war to remain united. To him it was worth it. We modern Americans all owe him a debt of gratitude.
Lincoln was President of the United States of America. Not the Divorce-able States of America. Or the “Co-Habitating” States of America. Or the “Friends-with-Benefits” States of America. The United States of America.
Just imagine had Lincoln not persevered. How would America have responded when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor? or against Hitler? Or against Communism? Had the country split in two, would America still have gone to the Moon first? or at all? Would America have the greatest economic capacity that the world has ever seen?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
He knew that the house could not stand if it remained divided. But never did he plan to achieve unity by wiping out the other half. Never did he plan to crush or defeat the other half. By being magnanimous, and generous, and open, he shut down those from his base who howled for ‘justice’ and a pound of flesh. He knew that the path forward wasn’t through spiteful prosecution of justice, but rather, through the amicable end of injustice. Part of Lincoln’s greatness, in my opinion, was that he intrinsically understood that one cannot make America greater by hating half of her people.
“While I do not agree with your opinion, I will fight and take up arms to defend your right to express it….”
…so long as the Union is preserved.
Unity is about finding common ground – even with those who may advocate differently. Even with those who may appear to be grossly different. Even with those whom you might call an enemy in a heated moment. A belief in Union shows that you can find common ground, no matter how far apart one thinks they might be.
Well, someone like Dylann Roof may be the exception that proves the rule.
The American experiment with Self-Governance insists that opposing and sometimes divergent voices be integrated into a union of social compacts and rule of law that is sometimes imperfect and certainly flawed but is all about turning that diversity of ideas and thoughts and expressions into a stronger more influential whole.
The Ark of History tips its cap to Abraham Lincoln. Why? Because in a time of extreme division, he gave the nation the framework to reach across the chasm and fight to stay united and then be magnanimous in victory to result in a more perfect union.
In the very first blog post for the Ark of History, the question is posted:
What do you call someone who voted differently than you in #Elections2016?
Answer: My Fellow American.
Abraham Lincoln would certainly agree. Americans are not the enemy. Maybe some of us vote for the opposition. But we’re all still Americans.