Lincoln, Our President Like No Other
I cannot let this President’s Day pass without taking the opportunity to share my deep and continuing love of Abraham Lincoln and gratitude that this remarkable man was our president at one of the most critical times in the nation’s history. His is an admirable life by any standard.
Experiencing the continuous deaths of those near and dear would be a major theme of Lincoln’s life. When he was three, his baby brother died in infancy. While his parents were pioneering a homestead, and living in a log cabin in Indiana, his beloved mother Nancy, died from milk fever after helping neighbors that were dying with the illness. Abraham, then nine years old, sawed the planks for her cofﬁn with his father, and then helped carefully make the dowels to peg the slabs together. She was laid out in their small one room home. The family was not church going but the grieving young boy insisted on obtaining a minister to perform a ‘proper’ ritual and say the proper words for his beloved mother, though it would take nearly a year to come about. Lincoln would later say with tender acknowledgement, “All I am, and ever will be, I owe to my angel mother.” And spiritually seen, we can know his whole life was held, guided and helped made great by her loving guidance from the spiritual world.
His dear older sister Sarah, and only full sibling, died in childbirth when Lincoln was nineteen and he was consumed with anger and anguish, feeling she might have lived if Sarah’s harsh and calloused husband had bothered to call a doctor. Soon after her death, the young woman he is said to have deeply loved, Ann Rutledge, died with typhoid at the age of twenty-two. Following this Lincoln endured a long depression, during which neighbors worried about his going on with his life. In the end, Lincoln would preside as president during the Civil War which threatened to tear the country to shreds and in which well over half a million people were slaughtered.
Strong karma drew Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd into partnership, she raised in wealth and Southern privilege. Flighty and impulsive she would go on spending sprees to deal with it, lavishly spending money on clothes and the White House furnishings amidst the deprivations of the terrible war. She projected petty jealousies onto Lincoln without cause. Yet she had a tender caring side and also wanted to serve and support him. Lincoln was over indulgent with his children, wanting to give them pleasures of life in the face of hardships and sorrow he had borne. Mary was scarcely better in this regard. She insisted Lincoln keep their oldest son from serving on the front lines of the war, but in the end Robert prevailed and served actively.
Yet Abraham and Mary were linked as a couple, and no more so than in mutual sorrow, for two of their four sons died as children, Edward at four and Willie at eleven during the War, the latter’s death plunging them both into unremitting and long lasting grief. Theirs was a painful, conﬂicted pairing, yet there was a profoundly deep bond between them, the recognition of the necessity of bearing life, however it came to them, together.
America as a nation in its founding pledged to honor the greatest principals of justice, that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, words that ignite the soul to this day. Putting these universal cosmic principals into the founding documents of a country, was unprecedented in history. Yet in failing to address how these great ideals were to be realized, left the inequities to fester for seven decades in the young nation’s history, till the gaping hypocrisy became more and more apparent and untenable. As inspired as the Founders may have been, many could not imagine that the noble words applied also to women, to slaves, to Native Americans, and to those who were not property owners.
Only the greatest the world could offer at that moment could help rectify so gaping a divide between ideals and reality. Only Abraham Lincoln could have fulﬁlled the sacriﬁcial deed to hold together the nation playing out its terrible omissions. Lincoln would declare the Bible “the greatest gift God gave to man. “All the good of the Savior of the world is communicated through the Book.” Yet he would not be conﬁned to a church or any narrow excluding beliefs. His soul and spirit too large, too ecumenical, too engaged in basic human rights and dignity to serve anything less than universal justice and goodness. His mission was for all humanity.
Through it all, Lincoln’s was a life of suffering and all who knew him could not help remark the sorrowful stoop to his tall slender yet powerful ﬁgure made strong by hard work as a youth, the brooding melancholy that often clouded his face, the moments he went inward, abandoning the present moment to wrestle soul pain, his own and others, depression and then extracting from the darkness, the creative, courageous, iron willed resolve and wisdom that would help move the nation forward. He would remark in his high pitched Kentucky drawl, “I walk slowly, but never backward.” He most always presented a compassionate and amiable face to those he met, including the constant stream of people coming to see him or seek patronage, a deluge he refused to limit. He insisted on staying close to the people in what he called, “my public opinion baths.” He was constantly engaging in jokes, homilies and parables to lighten his own soul while imparting deep wisdom to uplift those around him. There was no keener wit, at just the right time he would observe, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself!”
His leadership was extraordinary, the rarest combination of capacities. He engaged two men as cabinet members, William Seward (Secretary of State) and Edwin Stanton (Secretary of War) that both disdained him as an incompetent country fool. Not only did he know these capable men would always tell the unvarnished truth rather than be “Yes” men and therefore valuable cabinet members, but he brought them both around through constant visits to their ofﬁces and giving engaging support of the work and welfare. “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Lincoln would say. In the end the two cabinet members were among his greatest admirers.
Lincoln has probably exceeded all of our presidents in time spent out of the ofﬁce doing his job, in the ﬁeld, in the work places of Congress, with his cabinet, on the battle ﬁelds and hospitals of the Civil War. He was hands on president leading by example, no one more engaged or taking more responsibility. He would stay up nights by the telegraph in the war ofﬁce to immediately know the results of battles and to make swift decisions. Lincoln declared,“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.” The distinguishing characteristic of Lincoln was a humility (sadly so scarcely noticeable in nearly all his successors) a humility that was so deep, so genuine and so human. This gave foundation to his unshakeable courage and resolve to carry forward with his work and sacriﬁce to serve the nation’s and the higher good of all humanity.
Lincoln’a suffering was written into his lean and self described homely face, (I feel it is rivetingly and vibrantly alive with true human nobility; ‘character’) When I compare it with the scarcely lined countenances of those presidents who conduct war in our era, wars and killings that are often ordered through those with the strange occupations of sitting in padded chairs in comfortable temperature controlled rooms and conducting murders with a computer click from half a world away, and then going out for coffee, there is simply no comparison. Lincoln often walked, without regard to his own safety, upon the battleﬁeld, visited the injured in the hospitals, wrote hand written letters to the widows, always seeing and experiencing ﬁrst hand the gut wrenching cost of the war he sought to end as quickly and effectively as possible and restore the nation to wholeness. In his last photo at ﬁfty six when he dies, he is soul weary and aged.
There is something Christ-like in Lincoln’s suffering. Certainly the deep humility and humanity he expressed was that of a man who knew he was bearing world pain as his own. He was shot on Good Friday. And he was the ‘Good Shepherd’ this nation needed at that time in her history which only his great qualities of compassion and sacriﬁce could bring to pass.” He would declare (and there were many set backs in his life), “I will prepare and sometime my chance will come.” It has been a spiritually inspiring thought for me to think of all those who died in the Civil War (I had ancestors ﬁghting on both sides) and the nation’s leader dying just at that time too, that there will be a common strength they will give for future times through their sacriﬁce.
In our era, when lesser men delight in sarcastically clawing the great ones down to the level of their clever but often primitive levels of human development, we can scarcely imagine the utmost devotion with which Lincoln was held by the nation, and the prolonged mourning at his death. Everywhere in America there were homes that had a picture of him enshrined, often along with a portrait of our beloved American sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was deeply relieved to see the integrity with which the actor took the role of Lincoln in a recent movie, to portray Lincoln’s courage, resolve, and deep humanity.
I have stood alone in the diverse green forest of quiet trees surrounding his mother’s grave. I have looked with awe at the great statue in the Lincoln Memorial and thought of all the hearts drawn to this spot to reach for the higher truths of being a human being and what it means to truly be a nation of those who would be free.
When I was nine years old, I did not have to suffer like Abraham Lincoln with my mother’s death. I just know that I loved this president most of all and have all my life from the time I ﬁrst knew about presidents. My teachers encouraged my artistic endeavors, my fourth grade teacher had me make a portrait of Lincoln that was over six feet high. I painted it somewhat after the statue in Washington Memorial. But the part I remember most about creating it was a royal purple drapery which I painted lying over his chair, like a throne. Unlike the drapery with the statue, mine was fringed with gold. I remember to this day, wanting the purple drapery to be beautiful and perfect, and ever so carefully painting that gold fringe. In my nine year old child’s mind, this was the honoring of a God. Lincoln great gift to America was to be her president in a time when God-like, wisdom, patience, insight, compassion and sacriﬁce were needed for the nation to continue to be