Monday, February 9, 2009

Living With Lincoln

"Lincoln the Lawyer", by Laredo Taft, located in Carle Park, Urbana, IL

Just in time for the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, I've finished reading "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It's a long book, and I spent the better part of a month reading it. It is absolutely worth the time, and I would rank it among the very best of the biographies and histories I have read. I loved Carl Sandburg's poetic Lincoln biography. This is totally different, in that Goodwin is essentially focused on a character study not only of Lincoln, but the men he chose to serve in his cabinet. It is a thesis on leadership.

Here's the thing: I still feel immersed in this book; I still feel I am being shaped by what Goodwin revealed about these men. I feel, more than ever, that my own character will be formed by reflecting on the character of Lincoln. I'm convinced that this one individual is the greatest leader this nation has had so far.

Marker outside the Champaign County Courthouse

I say that I feel this "more than ever", because, to some degree, like many native Central Illinoisians, Lincoln has always been part of my life. Just as multi-generational New Englanders surely feel the presence and influence of those early Puritan settlers as they look around their towns, we can hardly go more than a few miles without a recognition, in some way, that Abraham Lincoln was present in our county courthouses, boarding in homes and taverns all over the area while he rode the circuit, debating Stephen Douglas at our fairgrounds, and giving campaign speeches from the back of a rail car at every little whistle-stop in the middle of the prairie.

I'm sure my fiery abolitionist ancestors here in Champaign County must have been present when he spoke at the courthouse that sits just three miles across town from my house. I'm almost certain they would have known him personally, meeting him when he was living in Urbana arguing cases, as there are records stating that they ardently campaigned for him. That family volunteered a father and three sons, as well as two sons-in-law, to fight in the Civil War. Two died; one 16 year-old was captured and sent to Andersonville Prison, from which he escaped and walked back to Illinois. They believed, like Lincoln, in the preservation of the Union and the containment and eventual elimination of slavery, and they acted upon those beliefs. They saw Lincoln as their moral leader.
170 year old coverlet from my Springfield ancestors, hanging in my stairwell

I know that my ancestors in Springfield knew the Lincolns well. My father has, stored somewhere safe, a note from a very young Abe Lincoln that is an IOU to my great-great-great grandfather for spotting him the cost of some postage. Later, when Lincoln was a lawyer in Springfield, he was a near neighbor and friend with my family, and they socialized frequently, and wrote letters when separated. I grew up being told of this relationship. My family donated the land on which Lincoln's Tomb is located, as a gesture of honor to their friend.

Abraham Lincoln isn't held up as a great man because he "just happened" to be president during the Civil War. Sesession occured between his election and his inauguration in part because he was elected, because of who he was and what he stood for. No, he is a great man because, despite the bleakest of childhoods, destitute even by frontier standards, he made something of himself, and yet never seemed to become possessed by the desire to become rich. He is great because, with less than one full year of formal schooling, he compulsively self-educated, becoming a lawyer, a congressman, and, after defeating much more highly educated men, president, and yet never seemed to value himself more than he valued others. He is great because, through the testimony of every person who ever met him, it is clear that despite a life in politics, there was never a vindictive bone in his body. He never acted out of pettiness or temper. He remained comfortable with both the commonest people and those at the highest levels of the social order. He respected and loved people with whom he disagreed vehemently. He pondered his major decisions at length, and then, once he made them, never second-guessed himself.

I'm sure that I have never met or known of a person like that in this day and time. The other great men of his time, despite tremendous accomplishments, simply were never his equals, and they readily admitted that fact.

One of the hardest things about reading "Team of Rivals" was knowing what was coming at the end. Throughout the book, admiration and love for Lincoln grow in the reader; but he's going to be assassinated. You know that. When it comes, it is still stunning, staggering.

Read this profound book about this unparalleled life. Surely there isn't any American whose life is more suitable for pondering.


Donna said...

What a heritage! Thanks for sharing.

Lady Sterling said...

We enjoyed going to Carle Park when we lived in Urbana and as we would walk by the Lincoln statue, it was a good opportunity to have a history lesson with our daughter. He is one of her favorites, next to Washington.

Rose said...

What a wonderful tribute to our greatest native son! As you say, one of the things that made him great is that he made something of himself, despite his poor background and lack of formal schooling. I doubt many professional writers today could come up with anything as profound as the Gettysburg Address or some of Lincoln's other speeches.

How proud your family must be to have such connections to Lincoln. That's a marvelous family heritage to be passed down from generation to generation.

Joyce said...

Rose, from the book I learned that Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg after another speaker who gave a two hour speech. I guess back then, long speeches were in vogue, and the sign of a great speaker was that he could hold everyone's attention for such a long time. Then Lincoln got up and spoke for 12 minutes. And yet, that's the one we all remember. It's perfect. Says everything he needed to say.