Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Greatest President

I'm no book reviewer, but I want to put a plug in for "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin and give a few impressions I had about Abraham Lincoln.

The book is a biography of Pres. Lincoln intermixed with biographies of his key Republican-rivals-turned-cabinet-members: William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. It follows each from birth until Lincoln's assassination.

We are always told that Washington and Lincoln are the two great presidents and anyone else is a distant third, but I did not have a clear idea why apart from the fact that they both presided over and were victorious in the most important wars in American history. I suppose that is enough in and of itself to label them great, but of course there is so much more.

A few years ago I read "His Excellency" by Joseph Ellis. That is a biography of George Washington. In that book you get a sense of the iron will of Washington and the unquestioning devotion and respect he garnered from the entire country, including men much more brilliant than he was like Jefferson and Hamilton. But so much of what created that respect seemed lost to history. I found it difficult to connect with Washington and instead still just rely on the fact that he lead the nation to victory against the powerful British. Again, that is enough to justify our awe, but there still seems something lacking.

With Lincoln we have a much more complete understanding of him as a person and why he is so universally respected, both now and by his contemporaries, that by the time I finished the book I felt this deep respect and, this may sound corny, love for him. I will freely admit that when the book described the assassination of Lincoln I nearly became emotional, so thorough was my connection with him.

So here are some of the basic aspects of Lincoln's leadership that I took away. First, he was a master storyteller. He apparently had an inexhaustible supply of stories and anecdotes which he employed to make a point or to drive a point home. Listeners were then better able to understand, appreciate, and relay the message to others.

He also had that ability, which I have known in some people, to make any person feel like the most important person on Earth, and to make them feel welcome and respected in any situation. One illustration of this was when Fredrick Douglass, the great African-American orator and abolitionist, arrived at a White House ball where everyone was white and everyone seemed to be sneering at him. Basically, he was generally unwelcome. Lincoln approached him, however, with a big smile and a handshake and took time to sit with him and have a one-on-one conversation. He had a personal warmth that could make any person feel appreciated.

Lincoln did not hold grudges. There are too many stories to reproduce here where Lincoln turned the other cheek at an offense. This undoubtedly kept him more happy, but it also became useful when he needed some of these very people to assist him as he ran for and became President. He had a level of sincere magnanimity that is rare in the population in general, and completely missing in our political class. This trait even extended to Southern traitors and rebels, who he was willing to admit back into the Union with minimal restraints or conditions. Unfortunately he was assassinated before his plan for Reconstruction could be implemented.

Lincoln was patient. He waited patiently for the right moment (after an important Union win in the battlefield) to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, despite thunderous criticism that it be done immediately. He waited patiently for his turn to serve in Congress as others stepped in front of him. He waited patiently for subordinates in whom he trusted to prove their worth before acting hastily and letting them go. He knew he was right and he knew that patience would serve him better than haste.

This list could go on. He was a master judge of character. He showed sincere empathy. He was humble. He had an intoxicating sense of humor. His prose was poetic and powerful. He was a convincing orator.

He was the greatest President the United States has ever had, and he died a martyr, like so many of the greatest are fated to do. There have likely been other Americans as great as Abraham Lincoln, but never have character and circumstance aligned so perfectly.


peter said...

Thanks Jake, I really appreciated this post. I think I need to read that book. Kristy

Jacob S. said...

You definitely should. Historians and scholars consistently rank Lincoln as the greatest president, and I think as a nation we owe it to ourselves to find out why. It is also useful to rekindle any waning feelings of patriotism we feel from time to time.