Some Idle Thoughts on Lincoln

Lincoln was sympathetic towards the South. His plan for Reconstruction included compensated emancipation. It also allowed everyone except high-ranking Confederate officers to hold political office after they had sworn allegiance to the U.S. The radical Republicans were much more vindictive. In 1864, two such Republicans proposed a bill that would have converted the South into a series of military districts (this is what actually happened under Andrew Johnson, who hated the South almost as much as he hated black people). Lincoln used a pocket veto to kill the bill. He explained to his secretary John Hay, “I must keep some consciousness of being somewhere near right. I must keep some standard of principle fixed within myself.”

Lincoln was a complex person. He’s tough to understand. I feel like that sentiment is something we can all relate to, though. You see, Lincoln was a great storyteller. He could hold an audience if he wanted to. But he was also very awkward. He felt self-conscious. Like Charlie Robison, he never learned how to wear his hair or how to dress. He didn’t walk. He plodded. He didn’t know what to do with his hands so he just let them hang at his sides, like a gorilla (a comparison General John McClellan made all the time). He was no Stephen Douglass. He had no wealth, no prestige. His charm was like a wand at Olivander’s: hidden away, to be sought out by a few people here and there.

What he did have was principle, and the political acumen to put that principle into action. His principle was compassion. Doris Kearns Goodwin says as much in her Introduction. He proves that the traits we often associate with meekness-forgiveness, empathy, shyness-can become political assets. It’s on everything he wrote and did. See for yourself. As far as we can tell, he refused to hunt animals as a child. He would scold his friends when they put hot coals on the the shell of a turtle. He once backtracked two miles to extricate a pig that was stuck in the mire, “simply to remove some pain inside of him.”

The sight of slaves being transported to market on the Mississippi was a source of continuos torment for him. When he was a flatboatman on the Sangamon, he told his cousin Dennis Hanks that if he ever got a chance he “was going to hit that thing”-slavery-“and hit it hard.” He stood against Polk and the Democrats during the Mexican-American War, which he thought, correctly, was a land-grab that would expose dangerous questions about the extension of slavery. Unlike a lot of Northern ministers, all his state papers-the First and Second Inaugural, the Gettysburg Address, the Meditation on the Divine Will-express a profound distaste for violence. When Grant asked him what to do if Jeff Davis were captured, Lincoln ruled out capital punishment before hoping aloud that he and his cabinet escaped to Canada.

The point I’m trying to make is that Lincoln had nothing to recommend him excerpt a set of principles, tenaciously held. They had to outlast Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Gettysburg-battles with 10, 20, 30% casualties. Battles where as many as 7,000 fell in 20 minutes, under Grant’s (and, by extension, his) command. They had to outlast 300,000 Union deaths and an equal number of Confederates. They had to withstand the vociferous criticism of radical and conservative Republicans, within and without his cabinet, and a Democratic Party bent on ending the war on any terms, however ignominious. They had to withstand the death of his own son Willie. He stood for his principles, often in the face of what seems today insurmountable hardship. Often alone.

Many people I’ve met have the intelligence and grace to maintain a bedrock of principles without much struggle. Many people I’ve met have no discernible principles at all. A few, and they some of my closest friends, like me, have neither the intelligence nor the grace to recommend themselves for anything else than their tenacious adherence to principle. They can’t stand on charm. They can’t stand on popularity. They can’t stand on charisma. They will stand on principle, or they will not stand at all.

This is not to say that charisma and popularity necessarily exclude principle. It is to say that those who lack both should not be discounted as misanthropes. They should be given the benefit of the doubt. I take it on faith that the vast majority of them are simply well-meaning and beleaguered, at all times doing the best they can. Like Lincoln.


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