My Book of the Year (2016)
Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, Carl Sandburg (762 pp)
A biography of Lincoln has been on my “must read” list for some time, especially since seeing the superb movie Lincoln in which Daniel Day Lewis made the man live again for our generation. Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was a renowned American poet and the only person who has won the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and history. The latter was for his monumental six volume biography of Lincoln which he later distilled into this one volume version which I read last year. It is a wonderfully rich, fascinating and absorbing read.
Because Lincoln’s Presidency coincided almost exactly with the American Civil War (1861-1865), which erupted a month after his inauguration and ended a week before his assassination, any biography of his life will be infused with the fascination and drama of that great conflict. Lincoln was the central figure in the most momentous events in nineteenth century America – the abolition of slavery and the struggle to hold the “United” States together as one nation. But what is here even more striking than the epoch-making events is the character of the man.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Leo Tolstoy expressed the view that in “moral power and greatness of character” he dwarfed all other national heroes and statesmen. A contemporary Supreme Court Justice said of him, “He grew wiser and broader and stronger as difficulties thickened and perils multiplied, till the end found him the wonder in our history.”
He came from humble beginnings (“Log cabin to Whitehouse”) and was mostly self-educated. He was marked by his humility and his empathy with ordinary people; his droll sense of humour and fund of folksy stories that were often used to clinch an argument or disarm an opponent; his ability to hold a group of competitive egos together and his uncommon wisdom in steering a political course in the most perilous of times; his moral vision and resolute commitment to both maintaining the Union and abolishing slavery. But, above all, I was struck by these qualities:
Generosity of spirit. This stood out in Lincoln’s response to the extraordinary abuse and invective poured upon him by political enemies and critical journalists. He was called ape, gorilla, monster, tyrant and worse, yet never retaliated or showed any rancour. There was something truly Christ-like in his refusal to return evil for evil and in his readiness to advance the careers of some who had criticised him harshly. During the election campaign of 1864 Harper’s Weekly commented that “The personal character of the President is the rock upon which the Opposition is wrecked. It dashes against him, hissing and venomous, but falls back again baffled.”
His magnanimity shone in his refusal to adopt a punitive policy towards the South. Robert E. Lee, the Southern General, said that in surrendering his rebel forces he “kept in mind President Lincoln’s benignity, and surrendered as much to the latter’s goodness as to Grant’s artillery.” The famous words of his second inaugural address express the spirit of the man: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds …”
Long-suffering and laughter. Lincoln not only endured the enormous demands of the Presidency (including opening the White House to a daily stream of supplicants, office-seekers, and people in need). He was called to lead a bitterly divided nation, and was plunged almost immediately into the anguish of a civil war that lasted four years and claimed the lives of over 600,000 soldiers – more than the combined American losses in World War 1 and 2. It is no wonder that many observers commented on the deep sadness in his eyes. But they also noted the sudden transformations to lightness and mirth. He was deeply acquainted with grief, and yet Sandburg devotes half a chapter to Lincoln’s humour and concludes that no other President had come to be so identified “with a relish for the comic.” Several joke books of Lincoln’s stories were published giving the “impression of a plain neighbourly, somewhat droll man, nobody’s fool, at home to common folks.”
A man of faith. In a number of ways Lincoln’s beliefs departed from Christian orthodoxy, but he was undoubtedly a man of genuine faith with a deep sense of dependence on God in all the crises of his time. He knew the Scriptures intimately and, although never formally belonging to a denomination, was a regular church attender. His Presidency was marked by his repeatedly calling the nation to thanksgiving or prayer for God’s aid in times of national need. He said, “I have felt His hand upon me in great trials and submitted to His guidance, and I trust that as He shall further open the way I will be ready to walk therein, relying on His help and trusting in His goodness and wisdom.” Sandburg detects “a distinct trend towards a deeper religious note, a piety more assured of itself” as Lincoln’s Presidency unfolded.
And Today? I’m writing this on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and it’s painful to consider the gulf in character between these two men. How has the nation of Lincoln come to elect a man so singularly lacking in character? A key factor has to be that today the electorate doesn’t value personal character as highly as it once did. The magazine First Things recently reported that public polling in the States shows that white evangelicals “now regard personal character as less relevant for public leadership.” How can that be?
Clearly many Christians have become so issue-centred (around things like abortion and the make-up of the Supreme Court) that they have lost sight of this reality – when it comes to leadership, personal character is the number one issue.