Profiles in Greatness: Abraham Lincoln

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Nearly 160 years after Abraham Lincoln’s death, the history books have yet to close on the man and his career. His most resounding legacy, of course, is the success of the Union, the preservation of democracy and the “[creation of] the possibility of civil and social freedom for African Americans,” according to the Smithsonian. But what made Lincoln tick? Which elements of his character and personality account for his rise from the obscurity of backwoods rail-splitter to leader of the United States?

Abraham Lincoln’s early life and education

Any one of the many obstacles Lincoln overcame during his lifetime might have thrown the ambitions of a less hardy soul off track permanently. Life on the American frontier entailed an unrelenting struggle for survival. Few families could allow their children to devote themselves to nonessential luxuries such as book learning. Lincoln’s overall progress was nothing short of astounding in light of his abbreviated formal education. During his lifetime, he attended school for about one year in total.

Most pioneers collapsed in physical exhaustion after dark, knowing that tomorrow promised only another backbreaking day of toil. Yet Lincoln chose to drive himself to improve his mind, reading, studying and ciphering long into the night. His mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, was a firm believer in the importance of learning. She often read from the family Bible to Lincoln and his sister Sarah. After she passed away and his father remarried, Lincoln lucked into encouragement of his independent studies from his stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln.

A lifelong learner through reading

Although his stepmother was illiterate, she owned copies of books including Robinson Crusoe, which young Lincoln immediately read and reread several times. She once said of her stepson, “Abe was the best boy I ever saw,” and commented of his disposition that he “never gave me a cross word or look and never refused in fact, or even in appearance, to do anything I requested him.”

The affections of his mother and stepmother, coupled with Lincoln’s eagerness to learn all he could through the printed word, were the positive constants in his life growing up. As a youngster, Lincoln never got the chance to put down solid roots. His father, Thomas Lincoln, set up family residences in three states by the time his son was 22. By then, Lincoln decided to leave home and strike out on his own. His thirst for learning served him well as he kicked his self-directed education into overdrive. While supporting himself as a postmaster and storekeeper (among other pursuits), Lincoln read for the law. It’s a process largely unheard of today, whereby instead of attending law school, a candidate for the bar amasses knowledge of legal precedent and procedure on their own. Not bad for a person who practically taught himself to read and write.

Tragedy and grief

A remarkable thread of persistence against formidable odds ran throughout Lincoln’s life. The finality of death stalked his every year. His cognizance of the transient nature of life effectively galvanized Lincoln to shape his own destiny.

Lincoln’s mother died when he was 9, after she contracted “milk sickness” caused by drinking milk from cows grazing on white snakeroot. Another personal loss during his early adulthood was the death of Ann Rutledge. A young woman he met in New Salem, Illinois, she was his alleged first love and to whom he was potentially engaged. During Lincoln’s first term as president, he was dealt another blow when his 11-year-old son William died of typhoid fever.

Grief may have been a hallmark of Lincoln’s life. But no matter how deeply he mourned, Lincoln still mustered the courage to move forward after each tragedy.

Abraham Lincoln trusted his gut and relied on humor.

Lincoln valued the lessons of history, and he cherished his friends. As president assembled a group of sage advisers for his cabinet, a group that included his three presidential rivals. Most of the time he listened to those experts, carefully considered their thoughts and followed their advice.

But when Lincoln felt absolutely certain that he was right, no matter how vociferously his new ideas might be opposed, he stood by his decisions. One such example was in his persistence in finding a general to lead the Union forces to victory. Although much better equipped than the ragtag Confederate forces, the Union armies were plagued by a lack of inspirational leadership. Lincoln had withstood withering criticism for promoting and then relieving his top generals. No matter how he was reviled for it, Lincoln held single-mindedly to the objective of finding a general capable and willing to destroy Robert E. Lee’s armies. He eventually selected Ulysses S. Grant, commenting, “I like this man. He fights.”

Lincoln depended on humor as a coping strategy. It was for him a means to maintain an even keel, though Lincoln’s wit often ranged to the self-deprecating. Even in the darkest days of his personal anguish, as well as in times when it appeared inevitable that the Union would sue for peace against a recognizably inferior rebel foe it nonetheless had failed to vanquish, Lincoln maintained his sense of humor. In Lincoln’s own words: “I laugh because I must not cry, that is all, that is all.”

Abraham Lincoln, a master of words

Ultimately, beyond his quiet political genius, Lincoln was a master of eloquence when writing. The Gettysburg Address, for example, was wholly the product of Lincoln’s methodical and systematic mind. Defying stylistic norms of the day, the speech was just 10 sentences—272 words—in length. Many in attendance were thunderstruck when Lincoln did not speak for hours, as Edward Everett did, during the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery.

Although the speech received mixed reactions at the time, The Gettysburg Address endures precisely because of Lincoln’s radical departure from established norms, the upshot of which resonates to this very day. State what you mean and have done with it. Allow the truth to speak for itself.

This article was published in April 2011 and has been updated. Photo by Everett Collection/Shutterstock

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