February 12, 2009, will mark 200 years since the birth the man scholars and the American public generally agree is our greatest president. Abraham Lincoln, born into frontier poverty in 1809, progressed through an amazing series of struggles and achievements to become the 16th president of the United States at a time when the very existence of the nation was in grave peril. When he died from an assassin’s bullet after four years in office, he had not only preserved the Union, he had also forever ended slavery for more than three million Americans and gave the nation a new birth of freedom.
Scholarly research and public interest in Lincoln is at an all-time high. No other American has been so widely studied, yet even as we attempt to learn about Lincoln, the very fact of his celebrity makes him larger than life. From the engraving of his visage on our five-dollar bills to his massive statue in his memorial temple in Washington, Lincoln seems to be an unknowable, godlike and mythical figure.
The truth is, we do know a great deal about Abraham Lincoln, both as a man and as a national leader. In Lincoln’s bicentennial year, it would benefit us to remember him and his rich legacy. As we face national challenges unparalleled in many of our lifetimes, we can draw strength and courage from how Lincoln responded to the great crises of his day. This is not to say Lincoln is a perfect guide or infallible source of wisdom; he, like all of us, had his foibles and blind spots. Nonetheless, few historical figures offer as much as Lincoln as we seek principles for significance and success.
The list of things we can learn from Lincoln is too long to include here. At the risk of oversimplification, let me suggest the following areas in which Lincoln’s greatness has meaning for us today:
- Lincoln was a life-long learner, eager to learn even from those who opposed him, and able to adjust his thinking and his vision to embrace new realities. He placed in his Cabinet men who had run against him and who initially belittled him, and he listened to them and won them over. His views about African Americans show he was able to move beyond the blatant racism and ignorance of his day to emancipation and eloquent support for citizenship for freed slaves.
- Lincoln was a great communicator, able to express the deepest of thoughts in concise, understandable, yet eloquent words that rang true and avoided duplicity and hidden agendas. His three-minute address at Gettysburg in November of 1863 gave a mission statement to the Civil War that forever changed Americans’ views of that war and government of, by and for the people.
- Lincoln did not shrink from difficulties and he had a vision for the long view. He set out with unwavering commitment to do the right things, as he understood them, regardless of the impact on his popularity, which was often very low. His great passion was to preserve America as one nation, which he believed was the last, best hope of earth. He was a principled pragmatist whose strength was less like a brick wall than like a wire—it could bend here and there as required, but absolutely held in the end.
- Lincoln saw himself as a servant leader who put the American people first. While he had high ambition, it was not for personal aggrandizement but for the advancement of the public good and moral principles as he saw them. Despite family tragedies and bouts of deep depression, Lincoln continued to function for the good of the country.
- Lincoln had a sense of humor and used it well. Despite the tragic events unfolding in the nation, he was able to interject a light touch, often when it was needed most.
- Lincoln drew strength and inspiration from his knowledge of the Bible and his belief in the providence of God. His second inaugural address is one of the great speeches of all time, in which Lincoln masterfully deals with questions of God’s justice and sovereignty and gives a compassionate human response to the sufferings caused by the Civil War.
As we begin a new presidency in troubled times, may the voice and example of Abraham Lincoln yet be heard and heeded in this beloved land for which he himself gave the last full measure of devotion.
Allen Carden is degree completion academic coordinator, program director and faculty in the liberal arts program at Fresno Pacific University. Carden also teaches and lectures on history with politics and Lincoln among his specialties.