I had time this weekend to finish reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. A truly excellent read which because I knew how the story ends I also found the last chapter totally heartbreaking. Lincoln never got to enjoy for one whole day the victory that he had achieved for humanity.
It is not overstating the case to argue that Lincoln, by his personality and wisdom was the person who held together the Republican Party as well as the tremendously fragile coalition which was the United States of America during the Civil War which had torn the U. S. apart. The person of Abe Lincoln is what made the difference – not only his ideas but how he dealt with the various factions he was constantly juggling, balancing as well as holding together.
Lincoln was criticized from every side and from every extreme, blamed for all that went wrong, and yet in the end many of these factions came to see how right he was. He was a determined and ambitious fellow to rise to the presidency as he did, but he knew how to spread credit around for what was going right and how to accept blame even when it was others who failed. He was forced to deal with the most divisive issue which all American politicians before him had avoided – that of slavery which also in America was founded in racism. And even for those who opposed slavery as an evil, the issue of the Black man’s role in America was far from secure as many who opposed slavery did not want to give citizenship to blacks for they were still at the point of only granting basic human rights to a people they previously did not consider fully human. It was not just slavery that had enslaved America, it was racial prejudice which had blinded the citizens of the country to their hard fought claim that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln came to understand that this was the real issue that America itself had neither resolved nor embraced.
Compared to modern politicians, I think Lincoln’s greatness lay in his ability to see his rivals and opponents as having different points of view rather than as being enemies of himself, the government or the nation. The American political divide today is so caustic because political factions do not see each other as Americans with different points of view but rather only as enemies, traitors, treacherous who must be destroyed. Lincoln on the other hand was always trying to figure out how to hold it all together. He wanted to preserve the Union and understood he had to preserve the unity of those who called themselves Republicans to do it.
He believed the government of the United States was of, by and for the people. What he felt had never happened before in history was whether such a government could hold itself together at a time of deep political crisis and division. Do humans need a king, emperor or dictator to force themselves to live and work together? Nobody knew until the American Civil War, and Lincoln showed that in fact democracy – even democracy deeply divided by civil war – can resolve its differences. No king or tyrant is needed, people can resolve to deal with evil in their midst without making each other evil.
Washington then as today was greatly influenced by rumor. Of course in Lincoln’s day getting the true story or picture of what was happening somewhere in the country was not always easy. News filtered in slowly and incompletely and people acted on rumor and misinformation constantly. Unlike today where CNN or 100 cell phone cameras and video cameras constantly record and instantly report to the world every little thing that goes on, in the mid-19th Century it took days for stories to be reported – even events that everyone knew were going to happen such as battles. People knew that it took time for news to be reported and digested and they expected their leaders to act in a timely fashion – which as Lincoln wisely showed does not always mean instantly. He understood the difference between the imminent and the important.
Lincoln came to recognize that any little thing he said became part of the public record and so he learned caution in speech. He had by nature a wisdom which told him do not speak or act in public when you are angry. Think before you commit yourself to anything and differentiate between that which provokes anger in you and that which really matters for one’s true goals. In Lincoln’s words:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”