Young Abe Lincoln: Lessons

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most celebrated and revered persons, certainly ranked in the shortlist of greatest American presidents. Abe, since he and I are on a first name basis, is also one of the most written about men in history.

During the past few years, I have to confess, Abe has been on my mind. America is in a bad place and our democratic principles are weakened, not from a foreign power, but from within. We are a country divided, with powerful forces working to subvert the function of governance into anarchy and corruption of the rule of law.

One night, a few weeks ago, I came across the John Ford film of Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda. I first saw this film about 50 years ago on an old black & white television set, late at night in a small lake cabin, in a place that seems lost in my childhood memories.

Henry Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln is a glossy view of the younger years of the 16th president of the United States. Self-made and self-effacing, determined, yet humble, there are too few people as earnest as Abe. Fonda captures the droll, but thoughtfulness of Abe as a young, country lawyer.

There is a scene early in the film where a killing occurs and an agitated mob storms the jail to lynch the alleged killers. Abe stands between the mob and the defendants. He talks reason, quieting the members of the mob who have been worked into a killing frenzy, to subvert the law for their own justice.

The film is a romanticized version of Abe’s early years of practicing the law and his foundational values. He represents both the aspirations of his time, and the flight of the underdog in the 1930s when the film was made.

That film was enjoyable, a popcorn Abe Lincoln; so now I turned to some more scholarly view of him. Abe was a complex man, a trait exhibited in his leadership. From what I have read, Abe was aware of many of his flaws and was humble about his failings. He did not pretend to be perfect. He could be temperamental, he had a long memory for bad experiences, could be accused of poor business management, and he was at times slow to act.

Richard Brookhiser’s book, Founders’ Son (2014), presents Abe as determined to apply the principles of our founding fathers, as outlined in their documents. According to Brookhiser, Abe depended on the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence for guidance and understanding, as he led the country through the Civil War and issue of slavery. All of the founding fathers were long deceased by the time Abe occupied the White House, and tackled the biggest internal crisis in the nation’s history.

Very much a self-educated man, who had a large thirst of knowledge and understanding, Abe was a reader, and more importantly, a listener. According to Abe’s stepmother, he copied down passages from books that he wanted to remember, reciting them as in school, so he was more likely to remember them. He used whatever scrap of paper that was handy, but rewrote these passages on better paper and studied them. If he wrote it, he would remember it. According to biographers, Abe wasn’t widely read, but he read deeply. His access to books was limited, but he digested the contents of what he read.

“Reading was a portal to thought and inspiration,” Brookhiser wrote. Abe’s father wanted him to have skills like reading. His father encouraged him, even when sending Abe to school meant he was not helping on the farm, and school cost money to attend. Abe was a valuable farm hand, not only to his father’s land, but he was hired out to other farmers as well. However, Abe would say he was “education defective”, spending only parts of several terms in school.

A legal colleague said of Abe that life was a school and that he was, “the most inquisitive man I have known.”

Biographer David S. Reynolds, in Abraham Lincoln In His Times (2020), also writes that Abe looked to the country’s forefathers for guidance, particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He saw them as mentors even though he never met them; his time and their time did not overlap. What he did have were their writings and those of biographers. These men represented logic, reasoning and well-balanced views to shaping the country’s early years.

Three forefathers who guided Abe through their writings and actions.

Abe particularly admired Washington. Reynolds writes that Abe desired Washington’s personal qualities of moderation and evenhandedness, two qualities Abe would used in his own leadership. It is not surprising that religion also played a fundamental role in leadership. Washington and Franklin were religious, but understood the importance of separation of church and state. Reynolds described them as deists, rather than devout in following strict religious dogma of being guided by a supreme being, Abe seemed to follow their example of being guided by morality, the Golden Rule and basic principles of humanity. They felt that religion had an important role in democracy, but that role was more about living a life of virtue and morality, rather than adhering to a particular religion. I found that rather eye-opening. These men saw the perils of a state religion or the literal application of religion.

In addition to Washington’s sense of evenhandedness, Abe was known for calm under pressure and having a self-effacing and modest view of himself. At times, his temper got the best of him, but he realized that was not an acceptable way to behave and reeled himself in. Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin noted that Abe would write a letter to the person he was angry, but not send the letter, and destroy it instead, as if casting off his anger.

“Honest Abe” once walked three miles to return an overcharge of six cents to a customer of his store. Money seemed to not mean a lot to him, as he was often behind in collecting fees from clients, and as President, Mrs. Lincoln sometimes spent beyond their means.

Abe used this sense of humor to make a point. Sometimes he was the target, other times he told stories, but it was remarked that he made his point and knew how to be succinct.

With his size and strength, from hard, physical working of the land, Abe engaged in contests where he leveraged these skills to defeat opponents, and could take care of himself in a fight.

Reynolds relates that as a young man Abe helped build flat boats and sailed to New Orleans numerous times with goods to sell. He witnessed the cruel treatment of Blacks in the city’s bustling slave trade. Reynolds says these images seared in his mind a revulsion of slavery. Even when a group of Black men assaulted Abe and companion, resulting in a fight to keep their boat, Abe did not take vengeance on the men. He did not hold grudges. “Violence or vindictiveness did not come naturally to him,” Reynolds says.

Goodwin also noted that he looked beyond his accomplishments to the good of the nation. After the war, Abe was focused the mission of unifying the country, instead of punishing the South or taking credit for defeating then. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

If you read Team of Rivals (2005) by Goodwin, Abe is not always presented in the most flattering light, not because she was being critical, the events she wrote about were of his struggles, mistakes and betrayed trust. Abe surrounded himself literally with rivals, inviting them into the Cabinet, even though there was infighting and betrayal. Abe picked the brightest and most able advisors, regardless of their lack or loyalty or desire to unseat him as President. He wanted diversity of opinion and preferred the best, rather than the most obedient. Sometimes, Abe’s trust and loyalty had unfortunate consequences as he did have to relieve General McClellan of his duties, even after giving him ample opportunity and support.

During the war, which reached areas close to Washington D.C., Abe often visited the Union camps to talk with soldiers. If you can imagine a large man, with a tall and distinctive hat, not far from the battle, an easy target should one have such opportunity.

Abe did not have an easy personal life. His mother died when he was young, though his father remarried. He lost other family members including several in the war. Abe would grieve the loss of two of his four sons to illness in his lifetime. His wife Mary Todd Lincoln, battled mental health issues, endured criticism of her spending, chose an active role in her husband’s presidency, faced the deaths of three sons and her husband, and was commitment to a mental intuition by her last-living son, who she would denounce. Imagine the life of the First Family: Keeping Up With The Lincolns, a reality series coming this summer on TLC.

Abe could occasionally be a rascal, but he was a serious, introspective man, who operated by conviction. Although he read and was open to advice, he was faced with leading through extraordinary challenges where no playbook existed.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” -Abraham Lincoln


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