Think Again: When goodness rises to greatness

Lincoln’s goodness was the source of his greatness, and his ability to draw towards his side those who initially underestimated him.

Lincoln Memorial 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Lincoln Memorial 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For those who subscribe to Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history, two proofs stand above all others in the past two centuries, at least on the positive side: Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.
As president, Lincoln succeeded in both saving the Union and ending slavery, even as Northerners were almost equally divided over which was the proper end of the war.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln describes how the president formed his cabinet from his defeated rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.
Each of those rivals had held more prominent public positions and was far better educated than Lincoln.
Each of them – at least initially – considered himself far better qualified to be president than the frontier, small-town lawyer.
Yet Lincoln made those rivals – William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates – his secretary of state, secretary of the treasury and attorney-general, respectively. The willingness to do so suggests that Lincoln’s hardscrabble early life, with but one year of formal schooling, had done nothing to diminish his sense of himself, however frequently he resorted to self-deprecatory humor to defuse tense situations.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln proclaimed “with malice towards none, and charity for all,” and throughout his life he repeatedly demonstrated a magnanimity and lack of malice or grudge-bearing of almost superhuman proportions. He stands forever – and this is one reason why his life is worth studying – as a refutation of Leo Durocher’s claim, “Nice guys finish last.” Over and over, he won the loyalty of former opponents through his generosity and largeness of spirit. His life serves as a veritable mussar sefer [book on Jewish system for personal growth] of instruction on proper character.
From the beginning of his public career, Lincoln demonstrated a capacity for empathy for others whose positions were diametrically opposed to his own. In an 1841 address to the Springfield Temperance Society, Lincoln, a non-drinker, counseled temperance advocates to refrain from denunciation of the drinker and the dram seller “in thundering tones of anathema... by which nothing would be accomplished.” He confessed to feeling no moral superiority to the drinker: “[Those] of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more from the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.”
He followed the same approach towards Southern slave owners. In one of his first national speeches on the issue of slavery, he appealed to Southerners in terms of deeply shared values embodied in the Declaration of Independence. He did not resort to crimination and anathema, observing that they only invoked the same in response, and that when men are told that they ought to be “shunned and despised,” the inevitable result it to “close all avenues to his head and heart.”
His refusal to bear a grudge was one of his greatest assets. In January 1855, the Illinois legislature met to select the state’s next senator. Fifty-one votes were needed for victory. Lincoln got up to 47 votes, with five votes going to an anti-slavery Democrat Lyman Trumbull. Trumbull refused to budge, and eventually Lincoln threw his support behind Trumbull to ensure the victory of an anti-slavery candidate, despite his far greater number of electors.
Trumbull and his campaign manager Norman Judd did not forget the smile on Lincoln’s face and warm handshake as he congratulated the new senator on his victory. Both men assisted his unsuccessful 1858 senatorial campaign, and Judd played a major role in Lincoln’s securing the 1860 nomination at the Republican convention held in Chicago.
At least as remarkable was his reaction to being publicly snubbed and humiliated. In 1855, Lincoln was hired as local counsel in a major patent infringement suit that pitted two of the nation’s most distinguished attorneys against one another.
Eventually, the case was transferred to Cincinnati, but Lincoln was not informed and kept working on his brief on the legal issues. Eventually, he pieced together what had happened, and arrived in Cincinnati with a lengthy brief in hand. When he presented himself, Edwin Stanton, who would argue the case, asked the assistant who had originally hired Lincoln, “Why did you bring that long-armed ape here?” Stanton demanded, not even deigning to speak to him or look at his laboriously prepared brief.
Yet Lincoln stayed to hear the arguments. The humiliation he had suffered did not prevent him from saying of Stanton’s argument that he had never “seen anything so finished and elaborated, and so thoroughly prepared.” More remarkably, it did not keep him from choosing Stanton for the critical post of secretary of war a few short years later.
Lincoln once calmed an actor who had inadvertently caused him to be ridiculed, by telling him that he had all his life “endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice.” Early in Lincoln’s first administration, secretary of state Seward, who had been the odds-on favorite for the Republican nomination, informed a German diplomat that “there is no great difference between an elected president of the United States and a hereditary monarch,” thereby suggesting that he was the real power behind the throne. Another man might have dismissed Seward immediately, but Lincoln recognized his great talents, and in time he became Lincoln’s closest adviser and confidant.
Similarly, treasury secretary Chase wrote countless letters to former supporters throughout Lincoln’s first term suggesting how much more energetically the war and emancipation would proceed were he president. Lincoln knew that Chase was a man of “unbounded ambition, and has been plotting all his life to become president.”
But he also knew his talents were needed as in the post, and turned down his resignation the first few times it was tendered. Even after surprising Chase by accepting his oft-proffered resignation, Lincoln subsequently appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court. He only worried that the new high office would cause Chase further grief by rekindling his presidential ambitions.
There was no insult that Lincoln would not endure to achieve the goals of the Union. Gen. George McClellan, nicknamed the “Young Napoleon” but totally lacking the French leader’s courage or military acumen, once went straight to bed, despite having been informed, upon returning from a wedding, that the president and secretary of state had been waiting a long time for him in his parlor. To the shock of Lincoln’s secretary, the president seemed to barely notice the insult, telling the young man that it was no time “to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.” He added that he would hold McClellan’s horse, if victory could be thereby achieved.
ONCE STANTON told a congressman who had received Lincoln’s approval for a particular project that the “president was a fool for issuing the order.”
When the congressman returned to the president, his response was, “If Stanton said I was a 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.”
Unlike contemporary presidents who deflect all blame from themselves, Lincoln often took blame from the shoulders of others upon himself. After his first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, was censured by the House of Representatives after publication of a 1,000-page report detailing corruption in the War Department, Lincoln sent a long letter to Congress explaining that the unfortunate government contracts were the result of the emergency situation after the fall of Fort Sumter, and that he and the rest of the cabinet “were equally responsible for whatever error, wrong or fault was committed.”
Cameron became thereafter one of the president’s most intimate and devoted personal friends.
And when charges were made that Cameron’s successor, Stanton, had failed to supply Gen.
McClellan with sufficient troops, leading to the latter’s defeat, Lincoln said, “The secretary of war is not to blame for not giving what he had none to give...
I believe he is a brave and able man, and I stand here, as justice requires me to do, to take upon myself what has been charged on the secretary of war.” No wonder Stanton was inconsolable after the assassination of the man he had once snubbed as a “long-armed ape.”
Rarely did Lincoln do anything in the heat of the moment, or without further reflection. After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote to congratulate Gen. George Meade on his “magnificent success,” while still remarking on the “magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would... have ended the war.”
His judgment of Meade’s failure to pursue Lee was correct; nevertheless he realized the devastating impact such a letter would have on Meade, and in the end placed the letter in an envelope inscribed, “For Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.”
Since Lincoln’s assassination, it is impossible to think of another American president to whom the approbation “wise” so easily attaches. Had he lived, the malice toward none and charity for all that he called for in his second inaugural address would have much more swiftly healed the wounds of the awful war over which he presided, and whose horrors he absorbed into his naturally melancholy soul.
It is impossible to read Goodwin’s gripping tome without concluding with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, “Of all the men I have ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” The goodness and greatness were not separate attributes. Lincoln’s goodness was the source of his greatness, and his ability to draw towards his side those who initially underestimated the self-educated prairie lawyer. His qualities are drawn straight from Pirkei Avot, and we could all emulate them to our benefit.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.