Sunday, January 18, 2009

Guest Blog: Abraham Lincoln's Caution


Popular history renders even the most towering figures
in a few bold strokes -- the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, that night in Ford's Theater -- but as the 44th president now obsesses over the sixteenth, what comes to mind are the complexities and contradictions that are demanded of leaders in times of crisis. To embody and act out the deepest feelings of an unruly nation on the brink of a civil war, Lincoln perhaps even more than wisdom and moral strength, needed a highly developed political sense of the possible.

On his way to greatness, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he said:
"Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decision. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."
The aspect of Lincoln's genius reflecting that understanding is the exquisite caution that led him to minimize, even mask, his deepest beliefs until he felt the public was ready to accept them. Consider this extraordinary example from one of the Douglas debates.

Faced with a banner depicting a white man, a Negro woman and a mulatto child, Lincoln declaimed:
"I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people . . . I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone."
Historians may argue whether such seemingly bigoted statements reflected Lincoln's convictions at the time or were strategic concessions to white racism by the man who was then also saying:
"I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty -- criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest."
On the surface, this might be branded timidity, even hypocrisy but, in the face of overwhelming evidence of Lincoln's deeply passionate nature, the answer is surely in his tactical skills. One observer noted:
"He plays what chess-players call a 'safe game.' Rarely attacking, he is content to let his opponent attack while he concentrates all his energies in the defense -- awaiting the opportunity of dashing in at a weak point or the expenditure of his adversary's strength."
Harriet Beecher Stowe described Lincoln's unique strength as "swaying to every influence, yielding on this side and on that to popular needs, yet tenaciously and inflexibly bound to carry its great end."

Such gyrations have led historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin to a deeper aspect of Lincoln's character, that he "possessed extraordinary empathy -- the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires."

Looking back at an array of presidents and all their accomplishment and folly, it is astonishing to find a figure so well-suited to the demands of a nation in danger of breaking apart forever. As Lincoln's one-time law partner William H. Herndon put it:
"Not only was his cautious, patient, and enduring; not only had he concentration and great continuity of thought; but he had profound analytical power.

"His vision was clear, and he was emphatically the master of statement. His pursuit of the truth . . . was indefatigable. He reasoned from well-chosen principles with such clearness, force, and directness that the tallest intellects in the land bowed to him. He was the strongest man I ever saw, looking at him from the elevated standpoint of reason and logic . . . The office of reason is to determine the truth. Truth is the power of reason, and Lincoln loved truth for its own sake. It was to him reason's food."
(TOP) Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address from the East Portico of the Capitol on March 4, 1865. John Wilkes Booth is barely visible in the top row, right of center.

(UPPER RIGHT) President-elect Obama and his family visit the Lincoln Memorial with a Secret Service entourage on January 10, 2008.

(MIDDLE LEFT) Depiction of one of the seven 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

(MIDDLE RIGHT) Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stove, who was harshly critical of Lincoln when he refused to free the slaves after taking office in 1861 but later came to deeply admire him.

(BOTTOM LEFT) William H. Herndon began collecting stories of Lincoln's life after the president's assassination determined to present him as a human and not a saint.

As memories go, Robert Stein has collected an enormous number of them as an editor, publisher, media critic and journalism teacher who has brushed shoulders with and advised the high and mighty. The former chairman of the American Society of Magazine Editors and author of Media Power: Who Is Shaping Your Picture of the World? rolls a lifetime of experiences into his terrific blog, Connecting the Dots.