Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

Abraham Lincoln

As trailers and advertisements for Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln appear, and as I look forward to seeing it; I am re-reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's superb biography of the great man, Team of Rivals.  It is indeed superb, and brings to life the character and times of our sixteenth, and greatest President.

T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem The Wasteland, "April is the cruelest month". Our country has never seen a crueler or more pivotal one than April of 1865, as the most horrific conflict in our history ended, a nation stood on the brink of political and social disintegration; and the great man was assassinated just as he was beginning his most important work; work that only he could accomplish - the healing and reconciliation of a nation.

There were two dominant figures of the Civil War - one a soldier and the other a politician.  Rarely has an era been defined by two such contrasting figures as Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.  On a personal level Lee was everything Lincoln was not. Raised in the rich Virginia tradition of Presidents, horsemen, and the soil; he was was athletic, handsome, courtly, and Valedictorian of his class at West Point.  Bold in strategy and audacious in spirit, he led the South with his military genius during the War, and by the power of his character after it. His final resting place is the exquisite Chapel at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington Virginia.  I nearly attended college there, and remember sitting in that Chapel on a sun-drenched April morning.  I remember the all but tangible weight of reverence settling upon my shoulders, as I considered the times he lived in and the manner of man he was.

But it was Lincoln who defined the Age, and stands glimmering through the mirrored pages of history. No President - not even Truman - has ever faced such agonizingly difficult decisions, or made such brilliant and courageous ones.  And no President has accepted responsibility for those decisions with such intrepid finality. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote of Lincoln that, "He was bigger than his country - bigger than all the Presidents together. His genius is still too strong and powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly upon us".


When considering his roots of stark Kentucky poverty, there is no question that Lincoln possessed a soaring intellect, a will of iron, and a personal ambition the equal of both. The Hand of Destiny was upon him as he clawed his way from back-woods obscurity, overcame bouts of prolonged and severe depression, educated himself, practiced law, and entered politics. His reading WAS his education, and so profound was his dedication to the great works of literature, and so encyclopedic his memory, that he rose above jurists and politicians educated in the finest eastern Universitites. Not only a political genius, he was a literary one, and the quality of what he read wove itself into the fabric of his speech and writings; missives whose beauty and nobility still touch us as they reverberate across the centuries.

In addition to his enormous political responsibilities, he carried personal burdens of equal proportion.  He buried two sons, and his wife Mary, raised in Kentucky, lost three Confederate brothers in the War.  We think of him pacing the halls of the White House on those countless nights when sleep betrayed him.  We think of him agonizing over the death of his beloved Willie, fifteen months into the War.  Of that staggering loss he wrote, "the War is eating my life out, and now this blow has overwhelmed me. I must get better or I will surely die". We see him losing thirty pounds from his already gaunt frame during the Wilderness Campaign, stupified by the suffering and slaughter. We try to imagine the overwhelming, flattening pressure; the sheer immensity of the burdens he carried. Then watch as he overcame every obstacle, inexorably fixed upon the call of his duty to maintain his personal composure, and in so doing, the political composure of the Nation he led.

But I already knew about his life and Presidency. What Goodwin's book gave me was a sense of the MAN.  He strides out of the pages of her book in that long, uneven gait, with first hand accounts of his masterful story-telling. We come to understand his unparalleled and disarming political skills. We grasp his enormously clever but always gentle wit, his playful sense of humor, his bed-rock sense of compassion and fair play, and his magnanimous treatment of both friend and foe.  Upon coming to Washington in 1860, he was regarded by most officials and the press as a gawking "ape", a frontier bumpkin hopelessly overmatched by the demands of his office. But four years of his skill, statesmanship, and utter goodness of character, would fix the indellible imprint of his genius upon their hearts, and upon the pages of history.

Winston Churchill once remarked that the great things in life are simple, and can be captured in words like freedom, honor, duty, justice, mercy, and hope. Nearly a century before Churchill spoke these words, Abraham Lincoln's life stood as a testament to them.

Today, we acces the Internet from devices that fit in our pockets.  Despite this we know nothing of real VALUE that Lincoln did not know; gleaned from the life he lived, and books read from the light of a Kentucky fireplace. 

And we have forsaken many priceless things that he did.

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