Looking for Lincoln

What follows is an expanded version of a talk I will give at the inaugural Dayton TEDx conference on November 15, 2013. At TEDx I have only nine minutes to explain why I love Abraham Lincoln and also explore how Lincoln guided this nation through the worst crisis in our history—the Civil War—and how he resolved our most intractable problem and great national sin—slavery.

I ask the audience to reflect on how much most Americans know about Lincoln. We do know that Lincoln is remembered. He is the subject of more than 16,000 books and recently Stephen Spielberg made a pretty good film about him. And he is still taught, as much as any American history is taught, in our content-deprived schools.

And if you go looking for Lincoln, you will certainly find his image. You will see his face in the signs and advertisements of the innumerable companies named after him and you will see statues and plaques of him in our public parks and buildings. 

You can see his visage as you pay for your coffee at Starbucks with a five-dollar bill, or when you stoop to pick up one of the more than 450 billion pennies that have been minted with his face on one side.

I ask the audience: “What does Lincoln mean to you?”

What Lincoln has meant to most Americans has changed a great deal over time.

In his own lifetime, Lincoln was subject to vicious ridicule, much of which was about how he looked and sounded.  

He was tall—6 feet 4 inches, or seven feet with his stovepipe top hat, and he was ungainly, with overly long arms and large feet. He appeared as if he needed oiling. His clothes did not fit very well. And when he spoke, his audience needed a few moments to adjust to his high-pitched rather unpleasant voice. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne was not alone in thinking Lincoln “was about the homeliest man I ever saw.”

As was his want, Lincoln used humor to deal with his looks saying that “common-looking people are the best in the world, which is the reason God made so many of them.” 

Since his assassination, Lincoln has been much loved, primarily as a common man who rose to leadership. As late as 1952, Hancock Insurance Company would issue advertisements with him slumped over a too-small chair with the caption, “He was everybody, grown a little taller.”

Yet although he was born a “common man,” Lincoln came to embody all that is best in us as Americans and thus became uniquely uncommon.

He and his greatness are so unlikely that he still seems to me to be something like a miracle.

Who was this man who made more of himself and gave more of himself than anyone I know of?

Lincoln was a mass of contradictions.  

Sad and contemplative; he brooded and was given to bouts of depression. Yet he was also funny. He was a loner who loved company. And he could be good company—friendly, kind, generous, and interested in other people’s lives and problems.

He was humble, but also very ambitious. He wanted to accomplish great things.

He was a visionary, but he was also a politician unafraid to use the tools of the trade. Spielberg’s film does a good job showing Lincoln doling out patronage, doing whatever it took to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery.

He was born in a log cabin, but he did not conform to what we expect from a frontiersman. He did not hunt or drink or hate Indians. And he made fun of his role in the short-lived Black Hawk War of 1832.

Raised in what he called an “unbroken forest,” he was required to do hard labor every day. But learning and reading not toiling in the fields is what he loved. He read deeply, mainly the Bible and Shakespeare, what the historian Fred Kaplan, author of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, calls “wisdom literature.”

Lincoln worked especially hard to excel at what he believed mattered most, which was writing. As he worked at his craft, his writings and speeches grew so persuasive that he changed the way Americans thought about race, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the meaning of the Civil War. He wrote every word himself, painstakingly, dwelling on the rhythms, the sounds, the inferences and subtle meanings.

And Lincoln grew. He grew from incredible suffering. He suffered so much that you wonder how he kept going.

He and his wife Mary Todd had a difficult marriage, and they endured terrible losses. Their son Eddie died in 1850 at age 3 from tuberculosis. And in 1862, the low point of the Civil War, the Lincolns lost the child they loved most, Willie, who died of fever at age 12.   

Lincoln wept and grieved and got up to read the telegrams listing the dead and wounded on the battlefields and wept some more and wrote personal notes to the mothers of the dead and sat up alone at night wondering what could possibly explain or justify all this suffering. 

Although not a member of an organized church, Lincoln spent his life immersed in the Bible and was deeply spiritual. He thought about God and he struggled with his faith. He searched for answers, for glimmers of understanding.

And this is where the miracle of Lincoln explodes into the world.

The Emancipation Proclamation came from the pen of a man who no longer doubted what he was meant to do. And from that time forward his vision was so clear, so distilled, that his speeches were magnificently concise. The Gettysburg address was only 272 words and lasted only two minutes; the Second Inaugural was 701 words and lasted only seven minutes.

Abraham Lincoln had arrived at a place of insight and conviction that few have ever reached. He had arrived there by embracing what Elmer Trueblood in his magnificent book on Lincoln’s religious views calls a “theology of anguish.” 

And in so doing he found a way out of our great national nightmare—slavery.  Lincoln faced twin obstacles to eliminating slavery—public opinion and the Constitution. To convince a reluctant country that slavery must go he put its eradication in the context of the commonly accepted American destiny to both establish and refine democracy. He had to convince people that how the War turned out would determine whether “We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth”—American democracy, which had been bequeathed, in his beautiful phrase, to “an almost chosen people.” And he had to convince himself, and his cabinet among others, that the war powers granted him by the Constitution allowed him to act.  

By the end, reflecting on his suffering and that of his countrymen, Lincoln had come to see the war as a plague visited upon America by the Almighty as punishment for slavery and himself as an instrument of God’s will, tasked with ensuring that something good came of these horrific calamities. Namely, that democracy would be saved and the sin of slavery would be forever purged from our land.

In his second inaugural, Lincoln was expected to be celebratory. The war was nearly over and victory was close at hand. But instead of claiming credit for the coming triumph, Lincoln made it clear that slavery and its continuance was not only the cause of the war but a national sin shared by both sides in the conflict.

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Northerners were expecting to be congratulated for their persistence and resolve, not consigned a share of the blame, so these unexpected words left most listeners stunned and confused. Not so, Frederick Douglass. Douglass was gratified to hear such an extraordinary depiction of national and personal responsibility and marveled at how far his sometime antagonist and recent ally had come. In what is one of my favorite moments in American history, Douglass sought Lincoln out at the inaugural reception that night. As the historian David Blight recounts the scene:

“At first denied entrance by two policemen, Douglass was admitted only when the President himself was notified. Weary of a lifetime of such racial rejections, Douglass was immediately set at ease by Lincoln’s cordial greeting: “Here comes my friend Douglass.” Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of the day’s speech. Douglass demurred, urging the President to attend to his host of visitors. But Lincoln insisted, telling his black guest: “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” “Mr. Lincoln,” replied the former slave, “that was a sacred effort.”     

Most Americans today do not comprehend that the Civil War did not have to end the way that it did. The Union could easily have lost the war, leaving two nations, one with slavery and one without. If Lincoln had lost the election of 1864, the war would likely have been settled with both the Union and slavery still intact.

It was Abraham Lincoln who made it otherwise.

And we will never know what more Lincoln might have accomplished. In the second inaugural, he said the nation must press on with “malice towards none” and “charity for all” but also with a sense of “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” And his vision of that “right” continued to grow. With but three days left to live, speaking to a crowd at the White House on April 11, Lincoln advocated voting rights for blacks who were educated or had served in the Union army. In the audience that day, as he had been at the second inaugural, Confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth knew full well what Lincoln’s “firmness” meant for the old racial order and pledged “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

In wondering how to end my TEDx talk I realized that for me it is in Lincoln’s face, especially near the end of his life, that we can see him clearest—we can see his suffering, his hard-earned wisdom and his extraordinary decency.   

In Maira Kalman’s wonderful children’s book Looking at Lincoln, a child goes in search of Old Abe. Beginning her search in library books she “gets lost in his unusual face,” realizing that she “could look at him forever.” After studying him a bit, she returns once again to his face. She ends the book by visiting the Lincoln Memorial, saying, “Look into his beautiful eyes. Just look.”