2009-02-12 / Editorial

My take on Lincoln

By John A. Murphy

Let's start with a disclaimer: It is said that more has been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American. It is likely that there is nothing in this essay that has not been said by others. Armed with the knowledge that brilliant and scholarly writers have commented upon every aspect of Lincoln's life and character, we still persist. Writing about Lincoln is a national compulsion.

As with many of those raised and educated in New England, close by the spiritual home of the Abolition Movement, I was taught early on to regard Lincoln as sort of a secular saint, the leader of a deeply flawed government, who forced a reluctant nation to fulfill principles that had previously been given only lip service. He was presented as a truly great president, perhaps greater than any who preceded him, and almost certainly greater than all who came after him.

Later, one learned that the reality was not simple, and that there were dark passages in Lincoln's life, both personal and public. But the importance of Lincoln as a model, as a paragon to measure others against, persists. Greater knowledge of the man simply results in refining the lessons that his life embodies.

Certainly Lincoln provides a model for political leaders, many of which make reference to Lincoln's words and deeds. Whether a politician or political party seeks truly to emulate Lincoln, or merely to bask in reflected glory, may be a good measure of the character of that politician or party.

Even if we have no active role in civic life, a knowledge of Lincoln's personal character can help make us better citizens. And better human beings.

The lessons from Lincoln's life and myth include:

• Respect for hard work: Lincoln was a farm boy, raised in a poor family on the American frontier in the first half of the nineteenth century. He grew up doing all of the physically hard work that such a life entails. Many politicians seek to associate themselves with a modest and hardworking background, but few, if any, can match what Lincoln actually endured. More important than actually having worked at physically hard labor, is a respect for those who do it. From Lincoln we learn about the dignity of work, and of those who perform it.

• The value of education: Lincoln is perhaps the world's greatest example of a self-educated man. Lincoln read, studied, and made himself into a highly educated person. He demonstrated that no matter how humble the background, education could lead to great success.

• The importance of persistence: Lincoln experienced many disappointments, both political and personal. He overcame depression. He failed repeatedly in efforts to get elected to public office. Yet he persevered, and ended up achieving his highest ambition, and was twice elected to the greatest public office of all.

• Courage, both physical and moral: Lincoln was a man who stood up for his principles even under difficult circumstances. Taking a unpopular position, in the face of hostile peers, requires moral courage. Furthermore, legend has it that Lincoln wrestled a bully and soundly defeated him. For boys, what better role model could there be?

• The rule of law: Lincoln had a long career as a lawyer, and achieved considerable success. It was his skill as a lawyer that formed the foundation for his political career. He saw first hand how citizens and society could be harmed when principles of fairness and justice were subverted. He knew the great value that was inherent in the rule of law, and throughout his political career sought to advance the protections that law could provide to the common man.

• Humor and effective advocacy: Lincoln loved telling stories and jokes. His ability as a humorist was legendary, even in his lifetime. He had the ability to defuse heated situations, disarm hostility, and make critically important points, all with a sense of humor. Certain of his stories might be considered risque or uncouth, but his ability to get a point across with humor puts him in a class with Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and George Carlin.

• Power of language: Lincoln was a champion debater, an effective advocate before courts, and a powerful public speaker. His ability to pithily communicate an idea, and his mastery of the arts of public speaking and of writing are demonstrations of the power that can be achieved with only language as a weapon. His Gettysburg Address, and his second inaugural address are considered to be among the greatest speeches ever given by an American president.

• Empathy: Lincoln understood people and could "connect" with them. For him, an understanding of the needs or condition of people, whatever their rank or station in life, was the first step to being their effective leader. Historians who have studied his political career attribute a great measure of his success as a leader to his ability to know and empathize, particularly with those who rarely got any recognition at all.

• Observe, listen, and learn: Lincoln famously put his political opponents into his cabinet. He was not afraid of ideas, and wanted to hear those of others, even those with whom he disagreed. Lincoln was not afraid of changing his position to reflect an new understanding based upon facts previously unknown by him. He viewed what he learned through the prism of his principles and values, and acted accordingly. A good example are Lincoln's views on race. Lincoln grew up in a deeply racist society. Historians tell us that for much of his adult life he shared many of the prejudices common in that society. Yet, during his presidency, as a result of things learned relatively late in his life, he came to favor citizenship and, gradually, a measure of suffrage for freed slaves. Although America reverted to racism after the Emancipation Proclamation and the adoption of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, it might not have done this so readily had Lincoln not been assassinated.

Since the foregoing material has the air of a sermon, it might be good to provide a story about Lincoln, one that demonstrates, perhaps, that he was no angel. This story has been declared to be reliable by Frank J. Williams, noted Lincoln scholar, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island. It arises out of a Illinois court case in which Lincoln was the defense attorney.

"The trial was proceeding poorly for Melissa Goings, charged with murdering her husband. Her attorney, Abraham Lincoln, called for a recess to confer with his client, and he led her from the courtroom. When court reconvened, and Mrs. Goings could not be found, Lincoln was accused of advising her to flee, a charge he vehemently denied. He explained, however, that the defendant had asked him where she could get a drink of water, and he had pointed out that Tennessee had darn good water."

A final point: one aspect of Lincoln's life demonstrates vividly the law of unintended consequences, which, as many of you know, is one of the principal corollaries of Murphy's Law. Although Lincoln was a champion of the common man, and of small town rural life, in which farmers and craftsmen thrive, as a result of the Civil War, American commerce became dominated by factory owners, corporations, and trusts, and had its first real class of millionaires.

May the occasion of Lincoln's birthday remind us to strive to preserve the important values that his life has embodied for so many.

Return to top