[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs and careers in “Sabbath.”]
The Man Inside the Hero
I just finished rereading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. I read the book some years ago and found it even more impressive on a second reading. Donald states early in the book that his goal was to follow Lincoln’s voice and words, which he does to a great degree. Every historian has to select examples and design a narrative. Donald’s Lincoln is a struggling human, not a superman. He wrestles with political as well as moral questions. Most importantly, for most of his presidency, his peers see him as indecisive and a failure.
Many of Lincoln’s critics did not understand how his mind worked. They were serious people who thought they had all the answers. Lincoln was humble and often tortured by self-doubt. At the same time, he was a leader who knew when to make a decision and take responsibility for his action. Donald depicts Lincoln as often being too involved in decisions related to military strategy. Frustrated by his generals’ lack of success or aggressiveness, Lincoln would devise his own battle plans. That all changed when he named U.S. Grant to lead the Union Army. Lincoln put his faith in Grant, and, despite early setbacks in 1864, his final choice of generals proved to be wise.
As a politician, Lincoln had to balance a Republican Party that was divided on the question of Emancipation. Many in the party agreed with Northern Democrats who want peace with the South even if it meant leaving slavery in place. Lincoln himself wavered on this question. He sought various compromises that included compensating former slave holders and colonizing the former slaves. In the end, influenced by anti-slavery advocates like Frederick Douglass and inspired by the sacrifice of African American soldiers, Lincoln became a strident champion to end slavery. Again, he adapted with the conditions of his time.
Lincoln’s genius was not so much his intellect or even his words as it was his lack of ego. Where other leaders could only see one path, Lincoln kept an open mind and accepted the fact that he could be wrong. When reporters pressed him to explain his policy, he answered, “My policy is to have no policy.” Throughout the war, Lincoln changed his mind and tried different approaches. Some, such as suspension of habeas corpus and shutting down opposition newspapers, were condemned as dictatorial. However, as Donald outlines in his biography, Lincoln faced such opposition that he had to bend the law to save the Union. Long before William James or John Dewey, Lincoln was a pragmatist who judged actions on results rather than ideals.
History never repeats itself. It is useless to speculate about how Lincoln would address contemporary issues, such as health care, civil liberties, or political division. The one lesson I think we can take from his life and political career is the need to balance principled belief with an openness to change. Maintaining the Union was Lincoln’s primary mission as President. That never changed. How he achieved that end in the face of so many challenges was the magic.