Jumping on the Lincoln bandwagon is pretty easy these days with things like the book, the movie, and Daniel Day Lewis. But I think Lincoln’s life offers many takeaways because of the way he behaved and held himself.
Tolstoy summed it up best: “Lincoln is a strong type of those who make for truth and justice, for brotherhood and freedom. Love is the foundation of his life. That is what makes him immortal and that is the quality of a giant.”
Having spent a significant amount of break reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (and still failing to complete the book), I feel qualified to give a completely unqualified look at the lessons I learned from Lincoln’s life and presidency.
What spoke most strongly to me about Lincoln was the fact that he didn’t have a specific goal to accomplish: he did not grow up dreaming of ending slavery. In fact, slightly to his discredit, early into his presidency, he found no reason (or way) to end slavery where it existed within the South.
He did, however, want to make his “dent in the universe” (to steal a Steve Jobs phrase). The earlier chapters of the book speak quite definitively about his desire to leave a lasting impact on the course of the world and his fears that all of the great challenges had already been overcome.
Lincoln repeatedly lost his bids for congressional office before achieving the presidency. He was often mistreated and underappreciated by his opponents (and sometimes even his allies). Even so, he kept a clear view of the long plan, unwilling to sacrifice the future for present gains.
One of his most notable tactics was ensuring his supporters treated potential voters for the Republican nomination with courtesy and kindness. He explained that they were unlikely to be the first choice for anyone but his goal was to be the best second option. He knew he couldn’t win outright, so he planned to win in the event of a deadlock and in doing so was successful.
Lincoln’s success did not come early. He spent many years working to teach himself law, working as a simple country lawyer, and working as a rather unknown senator before he got his break. The “overnight success that was years in the making” paradigm was clearly at work throughout his story.
Lincoln held many incredibly absurd views. He felt that Caucasians and African-Americans could not live peaceably together. He went so far as to convene a council to convince the majority of soon-to-be freed slaves that relocation to Africa was their best option and he was a staunch believer that the Civil War should not be a war to end slavery.
While he was slow to change his mind, he showed a clear willingness to be proven wrong and make decisions that challenged his previous beliefs. Most notably, he reversed his decision to try to colonize freed slaves and he made a decisive change with the Emancipation Proclamation, formally making the war a war to end slavery.
He managed to successfully navigate incredibly difficult political waters through compromise while maintaining his staunchest values. Even people who disagreed with him recognized that once he made a decision public, it would not be revoked.
I think that Lincoln’s strongest quality was his ability to see beyond the (sometimes petty) politics to make the changes he recognized were most important. While president, half of the Union thought he was a dunce, a lunatic, or a simpleton. He was consistently able to weave his way to an endgame that supported all parties as best he could and he felt deep empathy for the men and women whose lives he impacted.
What was most inspiring for me was the fact that he was not a “great” man in many senses of the word. It is unlikely that he could be considered a polymath today. He did not have the connections or vocabulary to move easily among the upper echelons of society. He accomplished great actions not through his ability to “play the game” of politics well, but because he created sincere connections with people and valued progress over ego or politics.
May we all accomplish things so simple and bold.