Have you ever been asked the question, “If you could meet anybody who has ever lived who would it be and why?” It’s one of those standard questions people pull out in awkward “get-to-know-you” scenarios. Whenever anybody asks me these types of questions I usually make something up, partly because I can tell they don’t care and partly because I’ve never actually given it any real thought. “Uh, Joseph Smith.” (Because I’m supposed to say someone like that.) “No, wait, let’s be honest, I’d probably pick J.R.R. Tolkien.” (Now that I think of it, this is probably what I should have been saying all these years. Unfortunately the whole point of this is to say that now my answer would be Abraham Lincoln, but Tolkien is a good second.) Well I’m here to tell you that I have an answer now! Thanks to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fantastic biography Team of Rivals the answer is…Abraham Lincoln!
In life and storytelling the measure of an individual is found in his or her interactions with other people. You know Darth Vader is bad because he treats other people badly. You know Samwise Gamgee is loyal because he braves the orc tower to go and rescue his friend Frodo. In real life we gauge the kindness or friendliness of a person by how they project those attributes towards others. Part of what makes this biography so compelling is its intended focus on the relationship between Lincoln and the members of his cabinet. By learning about the dynamics that existed between Lincoln and those he associated with we learn more about who he was as a person than if we were just given the details of his great achievements. For me, it made Lincoln into a real person. I would just like to share a little bit of what I learned about this remarkable man.
As the title suggests, Lincoln’s cabinet—his political family—was composed of people who were often at odds with each other. Indeed, three of them ran against Lincoln for the Republican nomination for president: William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. What stood out to me in Goodwin’s depiction of Lincoln was his unparalleled ability to win the hearts of everyone he met, including these men who initially viewed him as a small-town lawyer who accidentally won the presidency. Indeed, his friendship with William Seward (the favorite to win the nomination) became an integral support to both men. Not only was he able to develop friendships with men he had defeated in the political arena, he was also able to win friends in political defeat. Goodwin provides an account of the time he magnanimously gave away his votes for the senate so that another member of his party could win the election. The men he helped never forgot this gesture and later helped him to secure the presidential nomination.
Part of his ability to obtain such friendship and devotion from the people around him came, I think, from his humility and his sincerity. He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky and rose to become the president of the United States by the work of his own hands. He could relate to people from all walks of life. This translated well into his speeches, which were described by James Russell Lowell “as if the people were listening to their own thinking out loud.” His humility gave him a connection to others, but his sincerity connected others to him. For example, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton initially looked down on Lincoln. Many years before Lincoln ran for president, he and Stanton were both assigned to the same court case in Ohio. When Lincoln arrived he found that Stanton and Stanton’s employer didn’t really want his help because they figured he would be a second-rate country lawyer. Later, during Lincoln’s presidency, Stanton’s employer assumed that some of the “remarkable” passages in one of the president’s recent address had been written by Stanton. Stanton replied, “Lincoln wrote it—every word of it; and he is capable of more than that, Harding, no men were ever so deceived as we at Cincinnati.” Stanton is described as being gruff and stern. Yet after Lincoln’s assassination Horace Porter recorded, “Stanton’s grief was uncontrollable, and at the mention of Mr. Lincoln’s name he would break down and weep bitterly.” Abraham Lincoln certainly had an intellect large enough to win the respect of all who knew him, but he also had the sincerity and humility to win their devotion.
I don’t pretend to be a scholar on Abraham Lincoln. I’m sure there are other biographies out there that portray him differently. I for one would highly recommend Team of Rivals because you will finish it wanting to be a little bit better. At least in this account, Lincoln’s story embodies what it means to be an American, but it also embodies what it means to be human. As Leo Tolstoy would write about him years later, “The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years… He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together… and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.” As we come to know the goodness in other men and women, our own goodness will increase. To put it simply, Abraham Lincoln was a good man, and that’s why I would like to meet him.