While many of our heroes have lost their gloss, Abraham Lincoln still shines brightly for many Americans because there is so much to learn from his life.
For example, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln was defeated in his race for the United States Senate by Stephen Douglas, making it Lincoln’s third electoral defeat in a row. As Lincoln emerged from the telegraph office into the rain-soaked street in Springfield, Illinois he lost his balance when his foot slipped on the slick boardwalk. Catching himself before he tumbled into the mud Lincoln muttered to under his breath, “A slip, but not a fall.”
He then smiled brightly.
Recognizing the symbolic importance for his political life of catching himself before he fell, Lincoln understood that his political career was not over despite his string of defeats. He started for home reenergized. In two years he was elected President of the United States.
“I claim not to have controlled event,” Lincoln candidly wrote in 1864, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Lincoln’s critics (both contemporary and posthumous) have often pointed to this confession as a sign that while Lincoln successfully rode the whirlwind of Civil War, he was not the builder of the nation that others have claimed- a kind of second founding father after Washington.
But it was this essentially negative trait (negative in the sense that it was passive and did not require action) that allowed Lincoln to remake US society on the basis of the words of the Declaration of Independence that declared “all men are created equal,” to include African Americans. He was able to accomplish this revolutionary object through passive management of the Civil War without turning it in to a “remorseless revolutionary struggle,” which might have irreparably divided the nation during Reconstruction.
Nowhere was Lincoln’s task more arduous than in managing and massaging the personalities of his generals (and to a lesser extent, members of Congress). Many of Lincoln’s strongest critics were generals who felt that Lincoln wasn’t taking their advice on how to conduct the war. In this chapter we will explore how Lincoln ignored personality (and public opinion) in supporting his generals and stuck to the principle of rewarding those that fought and won battles.
The most striking examples of this were the cases of General George McClellan and US Grant.
McClellan was the commander of the Army of the Potomac and later general-in-chief of all Federal forces. Mostly on the strength of a strong personality, McClellan dazzled soldiers and politicians despite the fact that he squandered several opportunities to beat the Confederates in battle. He was glamorous, good looking and just credible enough to be plausible. Lincoln however was not fooled.
Instead, Lincoln found himself drawn to the unpopular and often shy US Grant. Grant won battles even though he was publicly ridiculed for being a drunkard, slovenly and lacking in refinement. When a group protested Lincoln keeping Grant in command despite hearsay that Grant was a drunkard, Lincoln only reply was asking them what brand whiskey Grant drank so he could get some for his other generals who hadn’t yet won a battle.
Lincoln once famously observed, “I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it."
Indeed, during Lincoln’s life he was ridiculed over his origins, (from a log-cabin); his looks (he described himself as “homely”); his lack of formal education (he was mostly self-taught); his wife (who could be quite arrogant and aggressive, not to say crazy); and a great deal besides. Probably no President dealt with as much abuse as Lincoln. Yet throughout his life Lincoln rarely struck back at his critics. He maintained, instead, a firm confidence about who he was which helped him turn critics into supporters.
In 1855, for example, Lincoln was hired to represent Cyrus McCormick who was claiming patent infringement against a defendant. In addition, McCormick retained a number of better established lawyers from the eastern US, including Edwin M. Stanton. As the trial commenced in Cincinnati, the other attorneys ignored Lincoln, shutting him out of the case with Stanton going so far as to call Lincoln “that damned long armed Ape,” within his hearing. Lincoln swallowed his pride and watched the trial from the courtroom with other spectators.
When McCormick later sent Lincoln a check for his services on the case, Lincoln returned the check explaining that he really hadn’t done anything to earn it.
When the client returned the check to Lincoln and insisted that he cash the check, Lincoln again swallowed his pride and cashed the check despite his grumbling about the “rough” treatment he got from Stanton.
What’s most amazing is that Lincoln later picked Stanton to become his War Secretary after the resignation of Simon Cameron. At the time of his selection Stanton was still an avowed critic of Lincoln. Lincoln was willing to overlook this because of Stanton’s superb managerial skills. As their relationship matured Stanton became one of Lincoln’s warmest admirers. Standing at the foot of Lincoln’s bed as the latter died of a gunshot wound to the head, Stanton proclaimed of Lincoln: “Now he be belongs to the ages.”
The GOP right now could use a backward glance at Father Abraham and the lessons he bring with the ages.
Defeat in one election doesn’t always mean defeat forever. It helps, however, if you know what you where you are and whither you are tending; if you have high ideals and stick to them, as Lincoln did.
Too, we mustn’t always be so ready to excoriate our foes- foes inside our own party who are often arrogant, unreliable and closed minded, these people we call RINOs. We will later need these valuable allies to get elected and run the party.
But to those who are quick to criticize the Tea Party trend inside the GOP as unrefined and often perhaps extreme, I would remind them that just like in the case of Grant, the whiskey we drink more often leads to victory than defeat. And really, you can’t say that much about your other generals.