Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

A Picture of Political Virtue

LincolnAbraham Lincoln is revered for the outcome of his life work, but not always recognized for the string of personal decisions that led him to his perilous presidency.

Through time, Lincoln’s mythic dimensions overshadow his lifetime habits of continuous self-improvement, indefatigable research, careful analysis, taut logic, non-judgmental character and moral-based decision-making.

When Lincoln became President, he arguably had fewer political credentials than most of his predecessors. But just as arguably, he may have been the most prepared for the deeply profound crisis of conscience facing the nation.

In “Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography,” the late William Lee Miller makes a convincing case that from small to large decisions in his life, Lincoln considered the choices, their consequences and their moral value. The centrality of this largely inner dialogue gradually gave Lincoln the confidence to make decisions and resolve to keep them.

Before he assumed the highest office in the land, Lincoln was tempted to accept the Crittenden Plan, which was touted by its backers as a way to head off southern state secession. However, Lincoln saw it for for what really was – political extortion. His platform as the Republican Party presidential candidate was to accept slavery in the original southern states as a “necessary evil” protected by the U.S. Constitution, but not budge one inch on allowing slavery’s expansion to any new territory.

Lincoln urged against all concessions on the logic, which was undoubtedly soundly based, that southern slaveowners would never be satisfied until slavery was viewed as normal, not an affront to the principle enunciated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

His resolve then mirrored his resolve earlier in Lincoln’s life when as an Illinois legislator he voted against a measure widely backed in the state that sided with Kentucky in blaming abolitionists for riots and undermining the Southern economy. Or when Lincoln addressed a political gathering and deplored mob violence, referring to actual mob violence some of his listeners may have participated in and all of whom knew about. Or the speech to the Temperance Society when Lincoln the tee-totaler acknowledged the pitfalls of drinking alcohol, but admonished against making moral judgments against those who drank.

MILLERobit-superJumboMiller, in his book, salutes Lincoln for the difficult task of becoming more resolute in his decisions and less judgmental in his views as he aged. Miller suggests Lincoln felt less pressure than most people would in the President’s position to defend his decisions. Instead, Lincoln thought it more important to explain why he made his decisions. And invariably, the why involved a higher moral principle – slavery was wrong because human beings weren’t property; the Union was perpetual, not optional; America could not be the world’s shining light of democracy in the shadow of indifference to the humanity of slaves.

Lincoln, intentionally or by accident, steeled himself for the nation’s moment of destiny when he chose to read instead of hunt, fish, smoke or drink; when he he chose to align himself with Henry Clay’s “American System” politics that stressed collective investment to promote individual opportunity; when as a freshman congressman he challenged the basis for President Polk’s war with Mexico; when he emerged from political oblivion to debate the greatest senator of his age on the most burning question of his day – expansion of slavery in Kansas and Nebraska.

It is hard to avoid seeing a larger-than-life Lincoln when standing at his memorial in Washington, DC and reading the eloquent and moving words etched in stone that were taken from his Gettsyburg Address and Second Inaugural.

Yet Lincoln was a man who chose politics as his career, wrote political hit pieces, campaigned endlessly for office and organized a political party before suddenly surfacing as president-elect. His resume could easily be summarized in contemporary terms as a “professional politician.”

What made Lincoln special was his capacity to see beyond his own limitations to the possibilities of a nation. He could see when there would be a transcontinental railroad, a government agency devoted to scientific research and a system of colleges that focus on practical learning. He could recall the mystic chords that bind us and exhort us to follow our better angels.

He could weigh the moral consequences if his choices and the nation’s choices. He could see the day when slavery was abolished, once and for all, because it was wrong – and because he wouldn’t say otherwise.

He turned out to be a lot more than Honest Abe.




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