In today’s increasingly turbulent world characterized by seemingly intractable conflicts, I was inspired to reflect more closely on what made Lincoln such a great man. Steven Spielberg’s recent movie and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography “Team of Rivals” provide rich insight into what motivated Lincoln and how he helped the U.S. reconcile the deep divisions that erupted in the Civil War.
His two primary strengths were maintaining inner stability in the midst of outer turbulence and working constructively with conflict.
Lincoln had an intense commitment to serving others – a commitment that enabled him to hold a firm and steady course during the most turbulent time in our history. He wrote, “I have no other [ambition] so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” He demonstrated an enormous capacity for caring and empathy, which endeared him not only to his closest colleagues and the soldiers whom he sent into battle, but also extended to the South he defeated in war. A newspaper editorial published in the Confederate capital of Richmond observed that his assassination was “the heaviest blow which has ever fallen upon the people of the South.” His commitment was to the welfare of the whole country, and he exhibited a remarkable willingness to forgive others and not hold grudges against those who opposed him.
Although not a formally religious man, he had a strong faith in God and an ability to communicate deep truths in a way that others understood. For example, he noted in his famous Gettysburg address that the greater purpose of dedicating the battlefield that claimed over 50,000 lives was for “us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion … that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
His capacities for compassion and wisdom were fueled not only by a strong sense of purpose, but also by his ability to renew his own energy during the country’s darkest hours. He drew support from family and colleagues, his loves of literature and theater, and his gifts for humor and storytelling.
Working with Conflict
Lincoln’s entire administration was dedicated to healing the conflicts which led to the Civil War. These conflicts existed not only between North and South, but also within his own party and between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. People differed over whether slavery should be eliminated entirely, contained within those states which already practiced it, or expanded to any new state in the Union which desired it. They differed about whether the primary purpose of the war was to uphold democracy or banish slavery. They differed over the rights to be extended to slaves who escaped to states which did not honor slavery or who were captured by the Union army for contributing (albeit against their will) to the Southern cause. Towards the end of the war, people in the North differed over the terms of surrender and repatriation that should be demanded of the South.
Lincoln’s essential approach to conflict was to honor the differences and reconcile them in service of the democratic principles on which the country was founded. He deliberately selected a Cabinet which embodied the different views within the Republican Party about eliminating or containing slavery. He valued all sides while avoiding the temptation to take sides. He respected people who disagreed with him, as when his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton countermanded one of his orders and called him a damned fool for issuing it. Said Lincoln smilingly, “If Stanton said I was a d—–d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.”
Lincoln not only looked for solutions which would achieve the highest good, but he also listened very closely to the tide of public opinion to determine when to make a controversial decision in a way that would generate the greatest support for implementing it. Moreover, once he made a decision, he could be counted on to be true to his word and follow through.
Implications for Today
We also live in a period of seemingly intractable conflict. We are being called upon to serve the greatest good as we understand it and honor the differences which threaten to destroy us. Learning from Lincoln and other great leaders in history can help us cultivate both the inner stability and ability to work constructively with conflict so needed in our own time.