Mark Twain said the best thing I have ever seen written about Abraham Lincoln:
“t was no accident that planted Lincoln on a Kentucky farm, half way between the lakes and the Gulf. The association there had substance in it. Lincoln belonged just where he was put. If the Union was to be saved, it had to be a man of such an origin that should save it. No wintry New England Brahmin could have done it, or any torrid cotton planter, regarding the distant Yankee as a species of obnoxious foreigner. It needed a man of the border, where civil war meant the grapple of brother and brother and disunion a raw and gaping wound. It needed one who knew slavery not from books only, but as a living thing, knew the good that was mixed with its evil, and knew the evil not merely as it affected the negroes, but in its hardly less baneful influence upon the poor whites. It needed one who knew how human all the parties to the quarrel were, how much alike they were at bottom, who saw them all reflected in himself, and felt their dissensions like the tearing apart of his own soul. When the war came Georgia sent an army in gray and Massachusetts an army in blue, but Kentucky raised armies for both sides. And this man, sprung from Southern poor whites, born on a Kentucky farm and transplanted to an Illinois village, this man, in whose heart knowledge and charity had left no room for malice, was marked by Providence as the one to “bind up the Nation’s wounds.” – Mark Twain (NY Times – January 13, 1907)
What I have to add is little and will never be as well said I am sure, but when I think about Abraham Lincoln, I can’t help but think of the near perfect mythical image of him we have created. It is understandable, because he did a great and powerful thing by keeping a country united through the worst kind of turmoil. He also carried the weight of all the human loss for it to his grave.
His humble log cabin beginnings would have been the end of most people but his thirst for knowledge and his all too human ambition provided him a place in history like no other president. He was in the right place at the best possible time and his fearlessness in the face of what would have been utter failure for a weaker man was exactly what an ailing nation needed.
It’s interesting though, how history distorts people, how it grows them beyond who they truly were. Even though Abraham Lincoln was inarguably an outstanding president, he was also just a man. And for me, it is his humanity that I admire most. He struggled with personal failings. He fumbled in his faith. He wasn’t always a good spouse. He did not always know the right course. He felt deep insecurities. He survived profound personal losses. He suffered from fantastic bouts of near paralyzing melancholy. But these were the very things that made him great.
In his humanity, he grew. His mistakes and his ingrained need for success forced him to evolve in ways lesser men would have surely failed. His personal heartbreak afforded him the empathy he needed to free a nation from its own ills. He used the lessons of his failings and mistakes, as a weapon to out think and out maneuver his enemies. No matter what Lincoln faced, no matter how hard the road before him, he was able to forge ahead and make something first for himself, then for a family and finally for a nation.
His intellectual aptitude coupled with his unmatched wit, afforded him an ability to excel in ways that ultimately gave him the power and the grace to lead our nation through a very turbulent time even in the wake of his own dire grief. The measure of Abraham Lincoln’s success is generally based on his astonishing capacity to succeed in the face of near impossibility.
The measure of a man is often based solely on his accomplishments but the true measure of any man should actually be based on how he withstands the trauma life throws at him. Is he able to stand and face it or does he cower away from the world? Does he learn and succeed or does he dig in and repeatedly fail?
Abraham Lincoln is and should be remembered for the remarkable skill and cunning he used to save a divided nation and free a people but he should also be remembered for the way he withstood immeasurably difficult personal tragedy and used it to save us all.
That is the true measure of man.