You may not think about the year 1809 very often. I know I don’t. When we look into it, we learn that 1809 was a big year. The Illinois territory was created, the steamboat was patented, and a woman, Mary Kies, was the first to receive a US patent. Louis Braille, Felix Mendelssohn, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Darwin were born. And on February 12, a baby boy was born in a small cabin city in Kentucky who would overshadow all of them, and ultimately, change the course of history. That boy was President Abraham Lincoln.
I find myself asking, how did a baby, literally one of thousands born in rural America at the time, become the man General Ulysses S. Grant described saying, “He was incontestably, the greatest man I ever knew.”? How did a boy with only one year of formal education become the person Walt Whitman praised with the words, “Abraham Lincoln seems to me the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.”?
Many of us have read one or two of the 15,000 books that have been written about President Lincoln. I’m sure hundreds of them offer numerous insights into how he rose to prominence. I want to share three of those reasons with you that stick out to me.
The first is teamwork. President Lincoln did not grow up understanding the importance of building relationships. He was a loner. He was self-taught. He learned to apply himself to problems, physical or academic, and solve them on his own.
It wasn’t until he moved to New Salem in 1831 that he began to make friends, first working on a flatboat and later as a shop clerk. He adapted to the new circumstances and excelled at building relationships so well that in 1832 he ran his first race for State Representative.
During his campaign, he volunteered to fight the Sac and Fox Indians in the Black Hawk War. He worked so well with others that his “unit” elected him to lead them.
He lost the election in 1832. But he won 277 votes out of the 300 cast in New Salem. He went on to develop a sophisticated grassroots political system in New Salem before moving to Springfield in 1837. He wrote, “This was the only time (I) was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.” He went on to win four terms in the General Assembly and one term in Congress before being elected President.
Learning how to work with people while adapting to changing circumstances helped prepare the future President to face his country’s greatest challenge. He couldn’t do it alone. He needed a team.
Second, President Lincoln learned the value of kindness. This wasn’t always the case. For instance, did you know that he almost fought in a duel?
While he served in the legislature, he engaged in the practice of writing “letters to the editor” of the newspaper sympathetic to his political party. The letters were either anonymous or used a pseudonym, and were sometimes in response to similar letters in the Democrat newspaper.
On one occasion, future President Lincoln and his circle, including his future wife Mary, wrote a series of letters criticizing popular Irish Democrat, James Shields. Shields was outraged and challenged the future President to a duel.
He learned his lesson. The future President was excoriated for his letters and chose not to run for a fifth term in the General Assembly. There is also no record of his writing any more letters like that again.
That doesn’t mean he bottled up his feelings. In his book Lincoln on Leadership, Donald Phillips writes, “Often, in order to vent his anger and frustration, he would sit down at his desk, compose a letter… and then walk away without sending it.” He remembered the harsh lesson he learned from his almost duel, and more often than not chose kindness over cruelty or conflict.
He also displayed kindness as Commander-in-Chief. The penalty for a soldier who deserted his military unit was death. Phillips tells us that Lincoln’s policy was to pardon most deserters unless the act put other people at risk.
Choosing kindness will help us fulfill Lincoln’s example made famous in his Second Inaugural, “With malice towards none, with charity for all, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…”
Lastly, President Lincoln taught us we don’t have to be defined by our roots. President Lincoln’s family was poor. His mother, Nancy, died when he was only nine years old. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was trained to be a carpenter and became a farmer.
The family struggled, moving from Kentucky to Indiana, and later, to Illinois. Thomas would sell his son’s labor to whoever would pay. In his book, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln – A Self Made Man, Sidney Blumenthal writes that the future President disclosed his indentured servitude at a campaign event shortly after becoming a Republican, saying, “I used to be a slave. And now I am so free that they let me practice law.”
By all accounts, his father was abusive. His father was an alcoholic. His father used him to make money. And somehow, Abraham Lincoln found it in himself to say, “I don’t know who my grandfather was; I’m much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.
President Lincoln taught himself how to work well with others. He learned to choose kindness, especially when choosing it was difficult. And he fought to rise above the challenges of his childhood. His example gives us hope that we can earn our own version of the American Dream.
If you have any additional thoughts or ideas, please visit my website at www.senatorstewart.com and use the form to send me an e-mail.