I’ve been reading a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin called "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." And I have to say that I’ve been freshly impressed by the character and personality of the 16th President of the United States of America.
Abraham Lincoln was a man who knew hardship. He grew up in complete poverty, with an abusive father and a mother who died when he was just nine years old. He was never afforded the advantages of formal education (he himself estimated that the entirety of his formal education — all the way up until passing the Lawyers’ Bar Examination in Illinois — amounted to less than one year). He had to learn everything he learned strictly by self-study, snatched from any time he could get away from hard physical labor: splitting rails, piloting river boats, farming, whatever… He was the quintessential American Midwest Frontiersman.
And then, even when he started getting into practicing law and politics, he became something of a perennial loser. People enjoyed his story-telling ability and sense of humor (these were some of most consistent compliments of Lincoln, throughout his lifetime), but they didn’t vote for him very consistently. He lost numerous local and state elections — only succeeding in serving one term in the United States House of Representatives before being elected President. And even when he was nominated to head the Republican campaign in 1860, he was generally considered to be only the 3rd- or 4th-best candidate among the Republicans (they say Lincoln managed to capture the nomination by being the second-favorite of everyone, with little to create objections among the voters, when the other factions stuck stubbornly to their favorite candidates). He barely won the national election to the Presidency (because the South was united against his party’s platform declaring that the spread of slavery into new territories must be stopped), and within months of being elected, roughly a third of the states seceeded from the Union (declaring themselves to be an independent country). And all of this was before he got elected!
Truly, Abraham Lincoln was intimately acquainted with hardship and difficulty.
But one of the adjectives most frequently used to describe Lincoln in "Team of Rivals" is magnanimous. Lincoln was gracious towards allies and antagonists alike. He dealt well with disappointments, defeats, and divisive personalities. He listened well, even when others were very caustic toward him. He had a firm personal policy against writing letters in a state of anger. He was a good and gracious loser. He exhibited extraordinary humility, but he rarely allowed himself to be swayed from his firm convictions.
It was ironic — though appropriate — that Lincoln was President during the time of the American Civil War.
The whole country was being torn apart by opinionated, stubborn, prideful factions. Not just the slave-holding states in the Deep South. There were also the "Border States" (like Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) who allowed for slavery but didn’t want to secede from the Union and slave-holding states who only reluctantly joined the secession out of solidarity for their Southern brethren. And even among the "unified" Northern states — even among the Republican party — there were vast differences of opinion. Between the former members of the Whig Party and the former members of the Democratic Party (who had been united into the Republican Party because of their opposition to slavery). Between anti-immigration Americans (particularly set against Irish and German Catholics) and the immigrant populations themselves. Between radical abolitionists (who saw the abolition of slavery as the main objective of the Civil War) and moderate Unionists (who didn’t really care about slavery, particularly out of deference to the Border States, but who felt that the preservation of the Union was the most important goal of the war). So as he prepared to take office in 1860-1861, Lincoln formed his cabinet from among representatives of all these various factions. And then, throughout the rest of his Presidency, Lincoln spent his time maintaining the delicate balance in his coalition and leading the country through its perilous period of coming of age.
Lincoln was truly a fascinating person. I think I’d like to be like Abraham Lincoln "when I grow up." Not necessarily becoming a President (or a politician of any kind) — but someone fighting extremism, practicing grace and magnanimity, humbly following my convictions, and leading well.