With Steven Speilberg’s new film Lincoln, our in theaters today, I thought I would share some of our 16th President’s attributes as shared by historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals:
A Man of Character and Humility
Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.
Unlike any politician I’ve known, he was quick to concede error, ever ready to learn from his mistakes. “I was wrong, you were right,” he flatly told Grant at one point. Words that we haven’t heard in recent years.
So rare among politicians, time and again he shouldered responsibility for the failures of his subordinates and shared credit for success. After every battle that was lost, he left the White House to visit the army at the front, riding slowly through their lines to boost their spirits, visiting the wounded at the hospital, telling stories that would then be retold a hundred times more.
“I have never done an official act with a view to promote my own personal aggrandizement, and I don’t like to begin now.”
Hope is “more than the sunny view that everything will turn out all right”; it is “believing you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals.”
As he had done so many times before, Lincoln withstood the storm of defeat by replacing anguish over an unchangeable past with hope in an uncharted future.
Even as a child, Lincoln dreamed heroic dreams. From the outset he was cognizant of a destiny far beyond that of his unlettered father and hardscrabble childhood.
His mind and ambition, his childhood friend Nathaniel Grigsby recalled, “soared above us. He naturally assumed the leadership of the boys. He read and thoroughly read his books whilst we played. Hence he was above us and became our guide and leader.”
Though a tranquil domestic union might have made Lincoln a happier man, the supposition that he would have been a contented homebody, like Edward Bates, belies everything we know of Lincoln’s fierce ambition and extraordinary drive – an ambition that drove him to devour books in every spare moment, memorize his father’s stories in order to captivate his friends, study law late into the night after a full day’s work, and run for office at the age of twenty-three. Indeed, long before his political career even took shape, he had been determined to win the veneration of his fellow men by “rendering [himself] worthy” of their esteem.
Discipline and keen insight had once again served Lincoln most effectively.
Lincoln’s ability to retain his emotional balance in such difficult situations was rooted in an acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways. In the most difficult moments of his presidency, nothing provided Lincoln greater respite and renewal than to immerse himself in a play at either Grover’s or Ford’s.
I believe the key to his political genius rested on an extraordinary array of emotional strengths that are rarely found in political life. He had what we would call today a first-rate emotional intelligence, which allowed him to put past grudges behind, to keep from wasting precious energy on personal contention, and to treat people, even those who were against him, with kindness and sensitivity. His most remarkable quality in some ways was his profound empathy, which allowed him to place himself in the shoes of people in all walks of life
Lincoln had demonstrated a perfectly calibrated touch for public sentiment and impeccable timing in his introduction of new measures.
The faith of the people in the sound judgment and honest purpose of Mr. Lincoln is as tenacious as if it were a veritable instinct…Harper’s Weekly agreed. In an editorial endorsing the president’s reelection, it claimed that “among all the prominent men in our history from the beginning none have ever shown the power of understanding the popular mind so accurately as Mr. Lincoln.”
Lincoln considered his meetings with the general public his “public opinion baths.” They “serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage out of which I sprung,” he told a visitor, “and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect, as a whole, is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.”
This great storytelling talent and oratorical skill would eventually constitute his stock-in-trade throughout both his legal and political careers. The passion for rendering experience into powerful language remained with Lincoln throughout his life.
“Then the inspiration that possessed him took possession of his hearers also. His speaking went to the heart because it came from the heart. I have heard celebrated orators who could start thunders of applause without changing any man’s opinion. Mr. Lincoln’s eloquence was of the higher type, which produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005),