Reflections on Lincoln, Ethics, and Leadership
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
When appraising the quality of leadership, and the impact one life can have on a culture and a country, Abraham Lincoln is often rated at or near the top of the list of presidents whose impact reached the deepest and has lasted the longest…. Many historians who have evaluated the importance and the elusive quality of greatness in a president will rank him highly…
Usually among the top three…. (others? FDR, Jefferson or Washington…)
And often cited as the highest example of consistent morality, our finest leader, and the most trusted and beloved of our presidents…
Yet, for all this acclaim, once I have read various biographies of him that exist, there was, in those interior moments flashes of greatness stood along side profound doubt; decisive actions next to frozen silences, enormous zeal that straddled both deep depression and aching loss…
He was a man of contrasts; he possessed a strong clear conscience, and mustered up confident convictions while living out a life of sleepless torment, and lasting loneliness…
Listen, then, to the words of his biographer, Carl Sandburg when he addressed the members of Congress as he describes Lincoln’s character:
“Not often in the story of mankind does someone arrive on earth,
who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as a rock and as soft
as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of
terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.
Here and there, across the centuries, come reports of people alleged to
have these contrasts. Abraham Lincoln is an approach, if not the perfect realization, of this character.
2 Since our school days, we have been given the outlines of Lincoln’s life story… Born in a log cabin in 1809, , the “rail-splitter” and as someone fond of “wrassling”; the young man who, by candlelight, became the self taught, determined lawyer. The nation knew him as “honest Abe,” and for me, as I have reacquainted myself with his life, and the depth of his character, his life provides me with a cogent yet disheartening contrast to what is allowed to pass for national leadership and for the qualities of active conscience today.
He was one of the first Presidents to be given the political name, Republican… Which was defined quite different than it is today… In Lincoln’s day, Republican meant having the best interests and goals of the whole Republic, and for which it stands, foremost in one’s decision-making…
There has never been a trauma so grave, so systemic, or so proportionally catastrophic for an entire nation as the American Civil War.
Neither the Great Depression, W.W.II, Vietnam or as I see it today, the the political opportunism and the obviously disastrous bankrupting price we are paying to fight against terrorism today!
However, what might be the same, is the realization that throughout the saga of human history, when a people or a nation faces a crisis, a leader emerges… and if guided by virtue, and supported by the people, and when motives and values are clearly understood, he/she can lead their society towards its relief and betterment…. It is also tragically true that certain forms of disastrous leadership comes about to fill critical vacuums in the sociopolitical consciousness, and then through moral lapse, corporate corruption, and intellectual collapse, can worsen what had been within redemption!
The 1850’s were just such a time in our American history and in our cultural awareness. What the Congress had failed to do, and what the previous president would not do, roiled and boiled itself over into a national crisis of vision and values, setting the stage for a nationwide turmoil.
The seething social cauldron of that era, was brimming with racial and ethnic prejudice, socioeconomic injustice, liaise faire greed, and a collective sense of alienation from the workplace to the neighborhood …
All that was coming to a roiling boil and that threatened to scald every citizen in its searing common guilt and its accompanying acceptance of ineffective moral teachings and gratuitous sensationalism and violence.
Into this storm, into this tempest, walked a humble giant, a man of an active, simple, and ever present faith whose priority for governance were to uphold the public trust. He sought to favor those institutional values that emphasized unity and that emancipated all the bound and gagged individuals from the previous national and institutional infamy and ignorance.
The fraternal bloodbath that was our Civil War was a direct result of a nation unwilling to face its own systemic ills, unwilling to correct the sins of complicity with status and class and the insidious collusion with financial corruptions. In what might be termed a last noble, a last ditch effort, Lincoln’s leadership sought to restore our national dignity, and the trust of the people in the direction and moral substance of its leadership.
In this central and compelling way, we can say that Abraham Lincoln’s task and importance was not in his ability to lead the fighting, not to defeat the South, not even to abolish slavery… His importance and his lasting impact was in his ability to repair the national soul.
This enormous task was placed squarely, and onerously on his shoulders- the burden was immense- it was a price and a preparation that he carried until his last sigh- until the last smoldering torch of hate and proud ignorance, or as Walt Whitman so poignantly stated it, ” My Captain, My captain… The captain of the ship, its port now safely reached, lay dead upon its decks.”
Being candid, the connection between the Lincoln and our liberal religious ideals is neither clear or precise, but we claim him, and many of those who wrote to him, and about him as an ongoing expression of those ideals and values that are closely aligned with our U-U expressions of what matters most in society and in life…
Concerning issues such as governmental reform, individual rights, religious tolerance, Lincoln clearly stated his Universalist outlook:
With charity for all, and malice towards none“
This statement from his Second Inaugural Address epitomizes both the man and his sense of service to his country and towards healing its character and soul. It was a foundational, guiding value that emphasizes autonomy and acceptance of various ways of belief, and differing approaches to life. Lincoln was raised a “frontier Baptist”. Mary Todd, his wife, was an Episcopalian, and while at the White House, they attended a Presbyterian church. In his memoirs, we read this benevolent benediction at the end of a letter he wrote urging support for the Union cause. Lincoln wrote:
Blessed be all the churches, and Blessed be God, who in the midst of our trial, gives us the churches.”
Clearly, this is the statement of a religious diplomat and a forgiving and tolerant man! All through his public life, first as a Congressman, later as a Senator, and lastly as President, he corresponded widely with our Unitarian religious leaders. Among those whom he met we list Channing, Parker, Emerson, and Walt Whitman. …
When he first met Channing, it was recorded that they spoke about their mutual firm Abolitionist stance. With Theodore Parker, they proclaimed their vehement opposition to slavery and any abuse of human rights as a national disgrace and as a flagrant disregard of the Gospel! Each time, before leaving, he urged the two preachers to take these sentiments back to their congregations and to reinforce its indomitable truth!
Emerson, on the other hand, had quite a different relationship with Lincoln, and as I dare say, Emerson often had differences with most of the religion and religious commentaries of his day. As he records in his Journals, Emerson was, at first, critical of Lincoln’s motive and magnanimous ideas…
He wondered to himself about this politician… He disliked his conservatism and reticence concerning the need to met out justice and punishment to those people whom Emerson believed truly deserved it, but then again, Emerson rarely understood politics, and there was no love-lost for the whole American political scene. Later, during the war, we read a more conciliatory view of the now President Lincoln:
He was a frank, sincere, and well-meaning man, who impressed me more than I had originally thought or hoped. He possessed a lawyer’s habit of mind-
Good, clear statements of fact, combined with a boyish sense of cheerfulness. He looks at you with great satisfaction, enjoying the telling of his own stories, and showing all of his teeth when he laughed
Well, that was about as close to a compliment as anything the often ascerbic Emerson ever wrote about anybody! However, there is one last entry into his Journal, at the very height of the War, that goes like this:
“He exerts the enormous power of the continent in every hour, in every conversation, in every act. He thinks and decides under pressure, and is forced to see the vast bearings of the measures he adopts, yet cannot carry a grace beyond his very own, a dignity whereby he drops all pretension and tricks and arrives at a simplicity, which is the perfection of manners.”
Any critique, then, by Emerson would be summarized as “he was too good” for the job of Presidency! Some rebuke! If only we could say that of our mediocre and often banal political leaders today! Remember Lincoln’s moral advice to young lawyers? He declared be honest, or be gone!
And most importantly, “Remember, when legal rights collide with moral rights, we are to defer to higher laws!”
However, it falls to our American poet-philosopher, Walt Whitman, to express the heights of admiration with a rare intensity that rooted itself in an impassioned respect for his national leadership….(remembering that Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War…)
The pages of our American literature texts are decorated with his tributes and desolation… We remember them in the poems of My Captain, When Lilacs Bloomed, by Ontario’s Blue Shore, and This Dust…… From these last two, listen to a few poignant lines of how country and self are connected:
I see the flashing [spirit] that this America is, you and me
Its power and its weapons, its testimony are you and me
Its crimes, thefts, defections, are you and me
Its congress is you and me,
The officers and the armies are you and me
Its endless gestations of new states are you and me
The war, so bloody and grim,
That I henceforth forget are you and me
Natural and artificial are you and me
Freedom, language, poems, employment are you and me
And then these words… upon visiting Lincoln’s grave in 1888:
This dust… This dust was once the man, gentle, plain,
just and resolute, under whose cautious hand, against the foulest crime in history known to any land or age, did save
the Union of these states
Such inspired sentiments go beyond what the mundane category of mere media notoriety or that simple hero-worship could contain. The answer to his greatness resonates to a universal, soulful call that affirms the supreme worth and essential dignity of a live given to selfless service, and mostly, simply the rightness of a man for his times…
Without much doubt, it was his example that lives on for each of us- his faith, his wit, his conscience, and his perseverance beyond present difficulties and challenges that made his indelible mark in our country.
Carl Sandburg, summarized Lincoln’s religious perspective this way:
“[He blended a simple, rational, but definitive morality with
an almost mystical devotion and persistent hope for the Union
and for all humanity.”]
And maybe it was the man himself who stated his beliefs best when he observed and proclaimed:
[” Our reliance cannot be on our battlements, our armies, or our navies,
but in the love of liberty that God has implanted in us. Our defense is found
in the spirit which has primed liberty as the lasting heritage of all humanity
in every land.”
Some last thoughts and speculations…
It would be interesting to place a man of Lincoln’s stature in today’s world just to see how he would react. Would his sincerity be sorely tested by the mass media? Would all the political back-scratching and pork-barreling
selfishness offend him? Would the Middle East for him become the new civil war, or would his concern be focussed primarily on domestic issues, caring for his own people?
I would venture to say that he would remain true to his guiding principles, despite how severely tested, derided, or unpopular they appeared. At the root of his response to both global and domestic problems would be his lasting concern for human rights and for justice.
I, for one, yearn for such moral courage and leadership for our times. Lincoln’s example bears urgent testimony for the power of conviction. I feel that it is the core of his greatness. I say: May we all learn from him, and then …. decide to go out, and do likewise….!
AMEN SO BE IT!
Selected Reading: The Religious Beliefs of Abraham Lincoln- his own words
“[I do not see that I am anymore astray- through perhaps in a different direction- than many others whose point of view differ widely from each other in the sectarian denominations. They all claim to be Christian… yet they differ and discuss these questionable subjects without settling on any mutual satisfaction among themselves.
I doubt the possibility, or propriety, of settling the religion of Jesus by confining it to man-made creeds and dogmas. It was the spirit in his life that he had stressed and taught, if I read it aright. From Jesus’ example taught to me by my mother’s lips, these words and ideals have been a fixed moral precept with me. ” When I do good, I feel good, That is my religion.” I cannot without reservations assent to complicated creeds and catechisms. If there is a church that truly espouses the Savior’s emphasis on love… Then that is a church I would gladly unite with.”]
What Lincoln is saying here is a commonly held belief by those who ascribe to an outlook has been called an Ethical Christianity, which like Jefferson’s Bible, did not care for or even include the metaphysical or the speculative. Living as Jesus did, is sufficient or the goal of the personal life.
There is so much concern these days for what side God is on… As if God could take sides… Lincoln said that It is a better question to ask ourselves if the our concern for our actions should be, whether or not its motives attest to acting as if we were on God’s side!
In one of his last memoirs and journal entries, he stated… “I tremble, and I am brought to my knees by the my belief that God is just.”
There is a story about President Lincoln and General Hooker, who replaced General Burnsides as commander of the Union forces. Hooker had set out at once to establish a reputation for himself as the general who took action! Accordingly, Hooker’s first dispatch to the President bore this inscription: Headquarters in the saddle!
Lincoln noticed the heading on Hooker’s dispatch, but was not impressed. Said the President to one of his cabinet members: The trouble with Hooker is that he’s often got his headquarters where his hindquarters should be!….
“Citizens, we cannot escape history. You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. …
The fiery trial through which we must pass will light us or will down us in either honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”
Excerpt from The Left Hand of God By Rabbi Michael Lerner, Ph.D.
If you intend to read a contemporary book on our cultural and political dilemma, or read a commentary on the political and moral crisis in our country, this is the one… If you want to read only one book on the changes, shifts, and new paradigms necessary for progressive thought to reclaim American consciousness and social awareness, then it is this latest book by Rabbi Michael Lerner….
He spoke of how the religious Right has taken over the moral and cultural dialogue in this country because we religious liberals and other progressive but secular minded people have been so unwilling to learn and use religious metaphors. The use or employ spiritual ideals in the cause of forwarding our more inclusive and compassionate approach to politics and life. This abdication of engagement by the Left or the Democrats, The Greens, and other groups on the progressive spectrum, this tension and suspicion associated with the teachings and principles of Western religious thought, set the stage conveniently and enthusiastically for the evangelical and conservative groups to walk in, fill the vacuum of our absence with their points of view of promised security, pious leadership and so we invited them steal the cultural show! Now, it is our time, our turn, our Kairos, to reinvest, re-engage, and reclaim some moral high ground and in doing so, move the social discussion and political agenda towards justice for all…
Rabbi Lerner writes: “[One of the greatest failings of the Left has been its refusal to acknowledge that the greater number of its members are motivated, directly or indirectly, by love, by caring, by generosity, and other spiritually based values. Human beings have a need for lives of loving connection and for a sense of some higher purpose for their lives other than accumulating money, status or power. The good news is that American politics can be fundamentally transformed if we can create spiritual Left; A Left that embraces hope and builds intentional spiritual communities based on spiritual values of equity and peace; those values espoused by the left Hand of God where the guiding ideals of peace, social and economic justice, ecological sanity, caring human relationships, and cross-cultural respect among humans will work to transcend the tribal concerns for race, class, gender, national boundaries, economic plunder. That will work, and that will uplift the spirit of openheartedness and allows good will and generosity to prevail.”]