Today I get to let my history nerd out in full flower. I am an unabashed fan of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12, 1809.
That he ascended to the pinnacle of power in this land exactly when we needed him to, and then became such an inspiring leader whose speeches are still quoted today, and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the Union during the Civil War. You’d think that he was educated at some great educational citadel and had an outstanding professional pedigree. He was basically self-educated and made a living arguing legal cases out on the back roads and in the backcountry of the midwest of the US.
His second inaugural address (With malice toward none, with charity for all…) is a masterpiece of the written word, given slightly more than a month prior to his death. A madman killed Lincoln barely a week after the war ended, seeking to avenge the South’s destruction during the War Between the States.
He possibly was not our greatest war president. He kept promoting and then demoting generals to run our great war machine. It wasn’t until he focused on the tactician who believed in attrition – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, in 1864, that the war would be won by fighting, not marching, maneuvering and posturing. Another midwesterner who figured out that with massive material and human advantages, the thing to do was to fight, and to keep fighting until the thing was done.
I love the little town of Gettysburg, PA where one of the great battles to ever be fought took place on three scorching hot days in early July 1863. Lincoln returned there in November of that same year and gave a speech that still echoes through time, as one of the signatures spoken treasures of this continent. Neither his speech nor his presence earned top billing that day, as orator Edward Everett was the featured speaker, and spoke for more than two hours. Lincoln was laughed at and ridiculed for the two-minute address that he gave.
But what Lincoln should most be remembered for was for the love of his country.
A deeply thoughtful and tragic man, he battled depression for much of his life. If you look at pictures of him from his presidential years, you will see someone who is careworn and sad. His death at age 56 in 1865 was tragic and a great shock to this nation, but he had outlived three of his four children, and the bloody, seemingly endless war took a serious toll on this weary leader, who loved to tell tall tales and laugh at the precariousness of the human condition.
His political acumen was greatly underappreciated at the time that he ran for the presidency in 1860. There were titans of the American political landscape who sought to lead this country, and Lincoln merely approached all the key players and asked that they consider him as their second choice at their nominating convention held in his adopted state of Illinois, in Chicago in mid-May, 1860. When no one could agree on who should be at the head of the Republican ticket, on the third ballot, all support coalesced around Lincoln, who had lost nearly every elective office he had ever sought up to that point.
Here is one of the main lessons to be learned from Lincoln. Nearly all of his political opponents – there were 11 on the first ballot of the convention – bitterly disparaged the man and called him an idiot, a monkey, a moron. Lincoln was magnanimous in victory, and asked some of his closest and most bitter rivals, to be members of his cabinet. After he was elected President in November of 1860, those same men were approached and each one accepted roles in the upcoming administration.
Despite their low opinion of him, he was convinced that the country could best be served by having these great men come together in the service of their country.
Our country was nearly destroyed during the Civil War. A great man came forward and held us together. He submerged his own ego and took on others who thought him to be shallow, inexperienced, awkward and unsophisticated. This tall, awkward, plain-spoken man, breathed his last in a boarding house on April 15, 1865, about 12 hours after John Wilkes Booth’s gun had discharged just inches from Lincoln’s left ear. One of those stalwart politicians who had mocked and ridiculed him five years before during the campaign of 1860, wept openly at his bedside and whispered: “Now he belongs to the ages…”