Abraham Lincoln’s Rise to Greatness

Rise to GreatnessEach year around the American Independence Day holiday I read a book on American history just to remind myself of the great effort it has taken to create “America.”    This year while on vacation I read David Von Drehle’s Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.  A good summary of the book is found in the book’s epilogue where Drehle writes:

“The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history, the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation. In the process, millions of lives were transformed: the lives of the slaves who were to be freed, and of the slave owners who would be impoverished; the lives of the soldiers and their families who bore the suffering of the first all-out war of the Industrial Age; the lives of those who would profit from new inventions, longer railroads, and modern finance; the lives of students who would be educated in great public universities. The road taken in 1862 ultimately led to greater prosperity than anyone had ever imagined.”  (Kindle Loc. 6866-71)

Abraham Lincoln was a great man, and so a good book on a great man is a winning combination!   I really liked the book which traces the development in Abe Lincoln’s thinking during the course of 1862 on the issue of slavery, how to carry out the civil war militarily, and what it meant to preserve the union.  I felt while I was reading the book that I was inside Lincoln’s heart and head, listening to the opposing voices feuding, feeling the pressure rising as the decisions loomed ahead, and agonizing over how to hold the union together while at the same time resolving the very issue that made union impossible.  The varying, 0ppositional viewpoints and the building pressures on Lincoln were unrelenting.  Really, one wonders how he survived it all – the reports of his acquaintances were that it took a tremendous toll on him physically and emotionally.   How he worked to hold it altogether was amazing; somehow Lincoln guided the nation through very treacherous and tumultuous waters.  Lincoln who frequently offered pithy wisdom said:

“To steer a true course through violent seas, one must understand the wind and tides, despite being powerless to change them. So it was with Providence.”   (Kindle Loc. 4834-35)

Lincoln wrestled with issues of the divine will, the will of the people, idealism about what “America” meant and is.  There were countless forces over which he had no influence let alone control, and he mused over the nature of life frequently.

“Lincoln now tried to discern a divine purpose behind the string of failures and betrayals that made the summer of 1862 so miserable. At his desk one day in September, “his mind … burdened with the weightiest question of his life”—of slavery, the survival of the Union, and the role of each in the war—Lincoln took out a fresh sheet of lightly ruled paper and began writing down his thoughts. “The will of God prevails,” he started, slowly and carefully. This was true by definition: if God exists, and God wills a result, then the result must come to pass. That is the nature of infinite power. Lincoln added a second proposition: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.” From these two ideas, Lincoln began methodically building his analysis, brick by brick, writing more quickly and fluidly as he went. “Both sides may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time,” he noted. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Almighty might favor the North or the South—or neither side: Providence chooses its own goals. But the players in this great drama—the generals, whether effective or incompetent; the soldiers, brave or cowardly; the politicians and opinion makers, wise or foolish; indeed, all the “human instrumentalities” of the struggle, as Lincoln put it—must somehow perform the roles they had been given by the directing spirit of God. When John Pope met mutiny rather than triumph on the road to Richmond, it must be because God had something other than immediate Union victory in mind. All this flowed logically from the first proposition: that the will of God prevails. Now Lincoln inserted a hedge. “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true”—almost, probably—“that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” If one believed in a divinity shaping history, then it followed that God could have saved or destroyed the Union short of war, or ended the war already, without this painful seesaw struggle. “Yet the contest proceeds.” He put down his pen. Perhaps he was interrupted, or ran out of time, because he seems to have stopped abruptly. The final period at the end of his meditation was jabbed with such velocity that it looked more like a dash. Clearly, he wasn’t finished, because the last sentence led so obviously, so irresistibly, to the next question: Why? Toward what end was this uncontrollable force moving? Nicolay and Hay, who discovered this unfinished rumination long after the president had folded it in half, and half again, observed that it had not been intended for others; it was Lincoln’s way of ordering his own thoughts. Yet these few lines suggest a first draft of what would become Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In that magnificent speech, delivered two and a half years later, he completed the chain of his logic. The contest proceeds, the president declared then, because “American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.” And because the offense was too large and too grave to be removed without suffering, God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Slavery, Lincoln believed, was like a tumor on the neck of the American nation. Cutting it out might be fatal, but the patient would surely die if the cancer grew unchecked. Thus the president was led to conclude that God was prolonging and inflaming the war so that slavery could not survive the inferno. Providence had chosen to remove the cancer; Lincoln had no choice but to act accordingly.”   (Kindle Loc. 4839-67)

Such was the nature of the thinking of the man who held the presidency during this period of great trial for the United States.  Lincoln took diverse and irreconcilable  ideas and weighed them in his mind ever searching for what the right path was for the country.  He made choices in the most difficult of circumstances.  He was not always right but he labored hard and carefully through all of the issues put before him while also dealing with a number of personal failures in those around him.

An example of Lincoln wrestling with what is right and with the will of God:

The president had already told the delegates that he was accustomed to hearing from religious leaders on the topic of slavery, and he found it strange that while clergymen held every variety of opinion, all of them claimed to know “the Divine will.” Why, Lincoln now wondered, didn’t God take the forthright approach and reveal his intentions “directly to me, for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!” The attending stenographer did not record that a pause followed, but it is reasonable to assume that there was one. Then Lincoln continued on a less declarative note: “These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”   (Kindle Loc. 5134-41)

Lincoln had an awareness of the historical significance of the decisions he faced and the profound impact his decisions would have on the future of the country.  Facing the issue of the curse of slavery of the slaves, Lincoln weighed the issues for a long time and only very slowly and deliberately came to the conclusion that there was no choice but to emancipate the slaves as the only way forward to save the union.  Drehle writes that Lincoln

“… understood, more than many of his contemporaries, that his actions on the first day of 1863 would be far more significant than any earlier promise he had pledged and kept. As he would put it later, the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century,” for it “knocked the bottom out of slavery.” Here was the “new birth of freedom” he would speak of so brilliantly at Gettysburg.”   (Kindle Loc. 6692-95)

It is rare to find a man with Lincoln’s depth of thought and power to weigh and analyze diverse opinions and to discern a path forward for the entire nation.   Today’s presidents face just as complicated issues and challenges, and are in need of the same powers to analyze and form decisions.  Lincoln was a giant among men.   Few other men have Lincoln’s gifts of deliberation and analysis, and few have the knack for bringing together rivals as advisors that he had.

Our presidents need Lincoln’s wisdom and understanding.   That is why they each also need our prayers.

A Prayer for our Nation’s Leaders

O our God, whose mercy is inscrutable:  Grant unto Your servants, our country’s rulers, the prosperity of Moses, the courage of David, and the wisdom of Solomon, so that they make give glory to Your Holy Name.

2 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln’s Rise to Greatness

    1. Fr. Ted

      From what I’ve read historians readily admit Lincoln was ambitious and manipulative in his politics. Really, few rise to the presidency who are not incredibly ambitious. And he certainly was in the Whig tradition and not in the Andrew Jackson Democratic Party tradition so he favored government doing some things for the people and the nation. All those things are true of Lincoln. What I give him credit for was bringing an end to slavery in America even though that wasn’t his goal. I think AL’s RISE TO GREATNESS shows him as a man wrestling with so many issues and only slowly coming to the position that slavery had to go. Certainly he didn’t have a real plan for what to do with a racially mixed society as he favored shipping the freed slaves out of the country. But in my way of seeing things, slavery is evil and not compatible with our constitutional ideas nor with the Declaration of Independence. What I think Lincoln came to realize was that he would have to bring the full weight of American wealth, power and government to end slavery. I think he was right about that. It was the horrible price America had to pay for allowing slavery to continue for so long. In his lifetime and then later for his family there was no personal gain in his position and actions. His opponents saw him as a tyrant in his lifetime. Neither he nor his family benefited financially or in power from the positions he took. We do not know how he would have handled “the peace” when the war ended. Had he lived long enough everyone may have come to hate him. But I think he did something, even if it wasn’t his initial plan, for the nation that was necessary. Slavery came to an end. A high price was paid, but Lincoln profited not at all.

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