Now he belongs to the ages

As I neared the end, I slowed down because I knew what was coming and yet didn’t want to believe that it happened.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals, describes not just Lincoln’s life but also the lives of his political rivals, who would eventually be part of his cabinet to form the “team of rivals”.

A lot of Goodwin’s book describes the events of the American Civil War, which I wrote about after I read Battle Cry of Freedom.

Coming from a humble background, Lincoln lived in the log cabin he was born in. His mother died young. For several months, whilst his father went in search for a new wife, the young Lincoln and his sister lived alone. Lincoln liked reading. His father returned with his new wife, and she encouraged Lincoln to read more. He read classics such as Shakespeare, Byron, Bunyan — memorising extracts from the writings. Much of his learning came through reading alone rather than formal education. Lincoln was not just a bookworm: he was athletic, excelling at running, climbing and wrestling.

Lincoln paid little attention to his appearance. He was tall and scruffy. With his stovepipe hat, he stood over two metres (seven feet). On early dates with women, he tried to hide his gangly arms and legs. In his early professional life, people were often bemused when they saw him, not getting a positive impression. One person noted on first meeting Lincoln for a legal case that he had “neither coat nor vest” and didn’t seem a lawyer of sufficient standing for the case he was looking to recruit him for. However, Lincoln’s charm, openness, good humour, stories and guilelessness usually won people over.

Lincoln was a compromiser. He didn’t make enemies gratuitously; and he bore no grudges against those who disliked or wronged him. The lawyer Edwin Stanton, for example, showed initial contempt for Lincoln, the “long armed ape”, as he once called him. Nonetheless, when Lincoln first saw Stanton in action, he found Stanton’s legal arguments “a revelation”. Lincoln resolved to go home “to study law”. Years later, when Lincoln was forming his first cabinet, he knew that Stanton’s clarity of thought and organisational skills were just what he needed and offered him the “most powerful civilian post within his gift” — the post of secretary of war. As secretary of war, Stanton came to respect and love Lincoln.

When Lincoln stood for leader of the Republican Party, he was not the favourite. (At the time, the Republicans were more liberal and the Democrats more conservative — the opposite of now.) Edward Bates and Salmon B Chase were more likely to win than Lincoln, but the clear favourite was William H Seward. These rivals were keener abolitionists. Lincoln, himself in favour of abolishing slavery, realised that the country was divided. Simply to abolish slavery with half the country objecting would result in chaos. This caution made him in some ways the least objectionable.

After winning the nomination for the Republican Party, Lincoln went on to win the presidential race. In picking his cabinet, he chose his three rivals, who all considered themselves more suitable for the role of president. When he was picking his cabinet, someone told him that Chase considered himself more intelligent, more capable than Lincoln. Instead of taking offence, Lincoln asked the person to find a whole cabinet of people who considered themselves more capable than him!

Until his death, Lincoln never stopped being generous to his rivals. Even Chase, who conspired to stand against Lincoln in the second presidential election, was treated kindly. Lincoln refused to remove him from the cabinet. Eventually Lincoln did accept Chase’s second resignation request, but he bore no ill-will. When it was time to pick the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Lincoln offered the job to Chase. (Chase, who’s ambition to become president knew no bounds, even after Lincoln died, would never gain the highest office.)

Lincoln believed that having a cabinet of people who agreed with him was no foundation for good decision making. As Seward later remarked, “a Cabinet which should agree at once on every such question would be no better or safer than one counsellor.” Disagreement and alternative views were ultimately beneficial. The cabinet members didn’t disappoint Lincoln — he may have got more than he bargained for! Despite that, Lincoln had a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness. By gathering his cabinet in this way, Lincoln had given them the opportunity to use their talents to the fullest and to share the labour and glory of the struggle that would reunite and transform their country and secure their own places in posterity.

The Civil War was beset with defeats. Lincoln was not helped by some poor generals, such as the forever procrastinating General George B McClellan. Even when it became obvious that McClellan must be dismissed, Lincoln managed through consensus. Lincoln eventually found in Ulysses S Grant and William T Sherman two generals who would be worthy adversaries of the formidable Confederacy general — Robert E Lee. When victory for the North became obvious, Lincoln instructed Grant not to humiliate the Confederates: there would be no revenge against the politicians who instigated the war or the armies who fought it.

Lincoln’s relationship to the abolition of slavery is complicated. He did want to abolish it, but he wanted to preserve the Union. That was his priority. His middle way frustrated people on both sides of the debate: for the radicals he was too conservative and for the slave-keeping states he was a perennial threat to their way of life.

Almost three years into the war, Lincoln surprised many people when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Again, forever the compromiser, Lincoln didn’t apply this to everyone. It didn’t apply to the border states, who supported the Union, for fear of alienating them. These states kept their slaves. It also didn’t apply to the Southern secessionist states who’d come under Northern control. But the Proclamation was historic: it changed the emphasis of the War from keeping the Union to giving freedom to slaves. Soon after Lincoln’s death, the Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution was passed, banning slavery.

Lincoln was a renowned speaker and storyteller. He had a never-ending treasure chest of stories to entertain people with. He laughed easily and joked frequently, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues, who thought some subjects were no laughing matter. Perhaps his most well-known speech is the one that begins:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

and ends about 200 words later:

that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The Gettysburg address was as powerful as it was short. It set a direction for America’s future.

Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, might be described today as a white supremacist. He could not bear the idea of Lincoln, who’d recently won his second term, ruling America forever, like an unopposed king. Such was Lincoln’s popularity that this was a distinct possibility in the absence of presidential term limits.

Booth and his three conspirators planned to kill Lincoln, Seward (the Secretary of State) and Vice President Johnson. As Lincoln and his wife rode to Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street, their plan was under way. Johnson’s assassin got cold feet, but Lewis Powell advanced towards Seward with venom. He stabbed Seward and his son (and others). Powell left a bloodbath but miraculously Seward and his son survived. The strain of the ordeal, however, eventually claimed his wife and daughter.

After Lincoln and his wife, Mary, sat in the theatre, Booth presented his calling card to the footman and entered the Lincolns’ box. Once inside, he raised his pistol, pointed to the back of the President’s head and fired from a few inches away. Booth fled whilst Mary shouted, “They have shot the President!” Lincoln was soon moved to the Petersen boarding house across the street. Such was his vitality that he held on longer than anyone expected. On 15 April 1865 at 7.22am, Abraham Lincoln was pronounced dead. Stanton’s concise tribute from his deathbed was poignant: “Now he belongs to the ages.” But Stanton, like many, was inconsolable. Stanton loved Lincoln and whenever Lincoln’s name was mentioned “he would break down and weep bitterly.”

Seward, who himself was fighting for his life, had not been told of the President’s death. His doctors feared he would not survive the shock. However, a few days after Lincoln’s death, Seward saw the War Department flag at half-past. “He gazed awhile, then turning to his attendant, said ‘The President is dead’.” The attendant tried to deny it, but Seward knew with grim certainty. He knew that if Lincoln had been alive, he would have been the first to visit him. Seward lay back on the bed, “the great tears coursing down his gashed cheeks, and the dreadful truth sinking into his mind.” Seward had become Lincoln’s friend and closest cabinet member. Seward, despite having his lifelong ambition to be president thwarted, was the first to recognise the greater man.

Sometime after Lincoln’s death, Leo Tolstoy, the writer, wrote that “he was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together.” He concluded, “We are still too near to his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.”

The mid-1800s were a dangerous time for the United States. There was a real danger of the country splitting into two. Looking back, we can see a precarious, circuitous, tortuous path that, if traversed, could prevent that future. It would require unique skills. Lincoln, it seems, was put on Earth to travel that path. No one else could have done it. Lincoln embraced the challenge that many could not see. With perspicacity, humility, fairness, kindness, and good humour, he lived his life “with malice toward none; with charity for all”. He was loved, even by the armies who fought the wretched war that claimed so many lives. Lincoln paid his own price for keeping his conviction alive: that America was one nation, indivisible, “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” His task accomplished, the universe reclaimed him. It’s a bargain he would have accepted.

[Much of the above, with or without quotes, is sourced from Team of Rivals. I’ve stitched it together, and rearranged it, to tell a story. But I have only skimmed the surface of the 750-page book. For more on my writing style, see the FAQ.]

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