Profiles in Greatness: Abraham Lincoln

More than 140 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 that this country is indeed the United States of America. 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 planet’s fastest-burgeoning democracy and eventual superpower?

Any one of the many obstacles Lincoln overcame during his lifetime might have thrown the ambitions of a less hardy soul off track permanently. Instead, his legacy is that of an American president against whom all his successors are judged—and a paradigm of the chief executive whose performance in office will serve as a benchmark as long as the nation endures.

Life on the American frontier entailed an unrelenting struggle for survival. Few families could allow their offspring to devote themselves to nonessential luxuries such as book learning. Lincoln’s overall progress is nothing short of astounding in light of his abbreviated formal education: During his lifetime, he attended school for about one year.

While most pioneers collapsed in physical exhaustion after dark, knowing that tomorrow promised only another backbreaking day of toil, Lincoln chose to drive himself to improve his mind, reading, studying and ciphering by the fireside long into the night. Although his father, Thomas Lincoln, was decidedly less than enthusiastic about Abraham’s innate drive to improve his mind through reading, his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, often read from the family Bible to Abraham and sister Sarah. After she passed away and his father remarried, Abraham lucked into encouragement of his independent studies from his stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln.

Although his stepmother was illiterate, she owned copies of Webster’s Speller and Robinson Crusoe, which young Abraham immediately devoured and read several times. The second Mrs. Thomas Lincoln 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.”

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 as he grew up. As a youngster, Lincoln never got the chance to put down solid community roots; in an age when many Americans lived their entire hardscrabble lives without crossing a county line, Thomas Lincoln set up family residences in five places in three states by the time his son was 22. By then, Abraham decided to leave home and strike out on his own, his independent thirst for learning and erudition serving him well. He kicked his self-directed education into overdrive. Even while supporting himself as a postmaster and storekeeper (among other pursuits), Lincoln read for the law—a process largely unheard of today, whereby instead of attending law school, a candidate for the bar amasses knowledge of legal precedent and procedure entirely on their own. Not bad for a person who practically taught himself to read and write.

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

Lincoln’s mother died when he was only 9 after she contracted “milk sickness” caused by drinking milk from cows grazing on poisonous herbs. With her last words to her children Abraham and Sarah, she urged them always to be kind. Another personal loss during his early adulthood was the death of Ann Rutledge, a young woman he met in New Salem, Ill., to whom he probably was engaged. During Lincoln’s first term as president, he was dealt another knockdown blow when his 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever.

This propensity to grieve was a hallmark of Lincoln’s character. But no matter how deeply he mourned the passing of people who were dear to him, after each tragedy Lincoln mustered the courage to move forward.

Lincoln valued the lessons of history, he cherished his friends, and as president he assembled a group of sage advisors. Most of the time he not only listened to those experts and carefully considered their thoughts, but he also 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 for years by a lack of bold, 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.”

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.”

Lincoln depended on humor as a vital coping strategy. It was for him a means to maintain an even keel despite the bleakest prognostications. Lincoln’s wit often ranged to the self-deprecating. He had long been acutely and painfully aware that his reedy voice, his Kentucky accent and his homespun ways hardly impressed members of the genteel East Coast establishment favorably. He felt gangly and awkward, too. Before sitting for the last photographic portraits of his life, Lincoln said of his own image, “I hope it doesn’t break the camera.”

Ultimately, beyond his quiet political genius, Lincoln made a profound impact on American English. The Gettysburg Address was wholly the product of Lincoln’s methodical and systematic mind. Defying stylistic norms of the day, this 10-sentence speech of 150 seconds’ duration set an electrifying new standard for elocution. Many in attendance were thunderstruck and aghast when Lincoln did not perorate for hours, as another speaker did at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, and as was customary on most formal occasions in the 19th century.

Although the speech was hardly well-received at the time (most contemporaries deemed it an abject failure), The Gettysburg Address endures precisely because of Lincoln’s radical departure from established norms. First, he thought things over; then he stood up to say what he thought. Then he sat down.

The upshot resonates to this very day. State what you mean and have done with it. Allow the truth to speak for itself.

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