Ever since seeing Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln,” in 2012 I’ve become an avid reader of all things Abraham Lincoln. About that same time, I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I guess I’ve read more books about Lincoln and the Civil War in this past year, than perhaps all books the previous 5 years put together; I’ve also read “The Hobbit,” and I’m half way through the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But, my real love has been getting to know Mr. Lincoln. In addition to James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a great overview of the Civil War, I’ve also read David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln,” Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” David Goldfield’s “America Aflame, How the Civil War Created a Nation,” “The Fall of the House of Dixie,” by Bruce Levine, and parts of “Civil War Stories, a 150th Anniversary Collection,” by the Washington Post, and “Field’s of Honor, Pivotal Battles of the Civil War,” by Edwin C. Bearss. Currently my son Matt and I are reading together, and discussing via Skype, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which interestingly is the book the movie that started this whole adventure is (loosely) based on. Even though this seems to have come full circle, I hope my interest in this subject has not.
Over this past year I feel I’ve gotten to know Mr. Lincoln in a very intimate and special way. And like other great men and/or women from the past, his words continue to speak to us today. I’ve been highlighting some of the words and actions, especially in this current book –and with my Kindle reading device, it is so easy to highlight and keep track of. (I never thought I’d be an e-reader, but I must say, I’m hooked!) So, I thought I would write a little about some of the quotes that have struck me about Mr. Lincoln, how timeless these thoughts are, and how useful they could be for our own time.
The first quote I’ll offer is from “Team of Rivals,” and the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates during their run for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858. Goodwin writes: “Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion. ‘With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed,’ he said. ‘Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.’”
In our current state of political and social polarization, (and even as bad as it is, after reading extensively about the Civil War this past year, we are still a long way from the worst relations in American history,) but it would be refreshing to have a leader, or just us regular folks, to come forth today and make compelling arguments, not to convince their followers how right they are about certain issues, but to persuade the opposition in the merits of their position, so they can see how right they are.
Lincoln lived and governed in difficult times, perhaps the most difficult in American history. He had a great sense of seeing all sides of an argument –to understand where the opposition was coming from. Goodwin writes: “Though Lincoln did not drink, smoke tobacco, use profane language, or engage in games of chance, he never condescended to those who did. On the contrary, when he had addressed the Springfield Temperance Society at the height of the temperance crusade, he had insisted that ‘such of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more from the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.’” He was able to make the argument against such things, without condemning and demonizing the ones who did. Today we love to speak about the spirit of Lincoln; wouldn’t it be nice if we tried more to live by his words, and actions?