‘This, then, is a story of Lincoln’s political genius revealed through his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates, to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes. He possessed an acute understanding of the sources of power inherent in the presidency, an unparalleled ability to keep his growing coalition intact, a tough-minded appreciation of the need to protect his presidential prerogatives, and a masterful sense of timing. His success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality – kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy – can also be impressive political resources.’
There was no dearth of humor among the Rebels. Whenever General Lee would ask how his veterans were, particularly toward the end, they would say, ‘General, I’m real hungry.’ One with a bit of the poet to him years later expressed it this way: ‘I thanked God I had a backbone for my stomach to lean up against.’ Yet another put his situation this way ‘My shoes are gone; my clothes are almost gone. I’m weary, I’m sick, I’m hungry. My family has been killed or scattered, and may now be wandering helpless and unprotected. I would die, yes, I would die willingly because I love my country. But if this war is ever over, I’ll be damned if I ever love another country!’
In 1832 Lincoln served as a captain in the Black Hawk War, an Indian skirmish which lasted but a few weeks and in which he did not once hear a shot fired in anger. In short, there seemed to be virtually nothing in this experience that might contribute to a burgeoning political career. He had a way of dealing with those who, like himself, had virtually no combat experience to bolster their careers: he showed how they and he were pretty much on the same footing. In short, their pretense brought out his withering humor. 'By the way, do you know I am a military hero? Yes, sir, in the days of the Black Hawk War, I fought, bled, and came away. Speaking of General Cass's career reminds me of my own. I was not at Stallman's defeat, but I was about as near to it as Cass to Hull's surrender; and like him I saw the place very soon afterwards. It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break, but I bent my musket pretty badly on one occasion... If General Cass went in advance of me picking whortleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charging upon the wild onion. If he saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say that I was often very hungry.'
Lincoln had a voracious curiosity. Since he had virtually no formal schooling he learned early in life that satisfying his curiosity was going to be his job and his job alone. Consequently, as a child he taught himself to read and write; he also taught himself Euclidean geometry, then surveying, then the law. He was a lifelong student of literature having memorized long passages from both Shakespeare and the Bible. As if all that were not enough, in 1849 he applied for a patent on his design for ‘a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant chambers with steam boats’ [these chambers were designed to lift steam boats above sand bars]. He is the only president in American history to have been granted a patent. Then as President he taught himself how to be a Commander in Chief.
Harriet Beecher Stowe one winter evening toward the end of the war asked if the president did not feel a great relief over the prospect of the war soon coming to a close. And Lincoln had answered, she said, in a sad way: 'No Mrs. Stowe. I shall never live to see peace. This war is killing me.'
'...I only wish to thank you for being so good - and to say
how sorry we all are that you must have four years more of this terrible toil.
But remember what a triumph it is for the right, what a blessing to the country
- and then your rest shall be glorious when it does come! You can't tell
anything about it in Washington where they make a noise on the slightest
provocation. But if you had been in this little speck of a village this morning
and heard the soft, sweet music of unseen bells rippling through the morning
silence from every quarter of the far-off horizon, you would have better known
what your name is in this nation. May God help you in the future as he has
helped you in the past and a people's love and gratitude will be but a small
portion of your exceeding great reward.'
- Mary Abigail Dodge, from her village of
Hamilton, Massachusetts, written on the day of Lincoln's second inauguration,
March 4, 1865.
'He treated Negroes as they wanted to be treated - as human beings... Negro visitors to the White House were treated without false heartiness, but without any sign of disdain. Never condescending, Lincoln did not talk down to Negroes, nor did he spell out his thoughts in one-syllable language of the first reader.'
'I entered the room with a moderate estimate of my own consequence and yet there I was to talk with - and even to advise - the head man of a great nation. I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln.'
'...and then, there will be some
black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and
steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great
The colored population is the great
available, and yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight
of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the
Mississippi would end the rebellion at once.'
'Recognizing me, even
before I reached him, the president exclaimed, so that all around could hear
him, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” Taking me by the hand, he said, “I am
glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural
address; how did you like it?” I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with
my poor opinion when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No,
no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country
whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you thought of it.”
I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”’
- Frederick Douglass, Ex-slave, White House reception after
Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865