The 19th Century German Philosopher Arther Schopenhauer stated, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”If true, Abraham Lincoln had a penchant for delivering bulls-eyes entirely invisible to his cabinet and his opponents. Though Lincoln was not unique in his shrewd grasp of the political landscape and his ability to leverage relationships to influence, there was something incredibly remarkable about him. Outside of his two years as a member of Congress from 1847-1849, Lincoln had little to no experience in Washington.
An abnormally gracious and tolerant man, his personal temperament was ill-suited for the backroom bare knuckles politics common during the time. He was a backwoods lawyer ridiculed by the press and his opponents. They called him the “rail splitter” because of his time working on the railroad, akin to an uneducated day laborer wandering into the oval office today. His arrival was so uncelebrated, he sneaked into Washington ahead of his inauguration, shamefully as the media of the day was quick to point out, to avoid spectacle or threat of assassination.
So why was Lincoln able to accomplish so much with so little preparation or pedigree? Where did his political genius come from? Beyond the Providence of chance, it came from his mind and the powerful way in which it grasped the big ideas of his time when others could not.
PART I: The Great Abstract
According to theSOI.com, a web based questionnaire used by Fortune 100 technology companies to measures their leaders Styles Of Influence™, people have four major scales: Cognitive Ideas, Relational Emotions, Goal Forcefulness and Detail Order. Those who score on the highest side of the Cognitive scale are considered to be “abstract” thinkers. “Concrete” thinkers are on the other end of the same scale. The assessment states:
“An abstract person understands the importance of an idea intuitively from a principle or value-driven perspective. Because of this, they are more likely to grasp how one idea can affect another, changing the meaning of both……This person will tend to speak in abstractions and metaphors in order to inspire or motivate.”
Lincoln was an abstract. He existed almost entirely in the world of the big picture. He spoke incessantly in metaphors and stories. Like Winston Churchill, he had a savant like recall. From a young age, he would entertain whole parties late into the night by reciting, word for word, one of his favorite plays or chapters from his favorite books. He had the ability to keep an enormous amount of information in the front of his mind and recall it when it was most appropriate and attach it to something relevant and easily digested by the room.
Also, like the assessment’s description of “abstracts”, Lincoln had an unequaled grasp of the principles behind the ideas he toiled with and how they ran into and out of each other.
At Gettysburg, he lead with “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He called on the foundational ideals of our forefathers and linked them to the sacrifice of Gettysburg and even more broadly, the Civil War. He drove home the message that this effort was a continuation of the work of our founders that all agreed upon was virtuous.
It’s important to remember that the outcomes of that horrific war hadn’t been written into the textbooks then. And were more in question than most of us are comfortable with understanding. Less than a century after Jefferson wrote the words, the very notion of the viability of democracy and the principles of liberty were still in question. This wasn’t permanent yet. Those tiring of war or politically opposed to the cause of Union or abolition needed to understand what was at stake; the very question of whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The people of his time understood Lincoln’s abstract message, as has history. His ability to deliver it in a clear, succinct fashion in less words than I’ve taken to tell you about it was what made Lincoln so enormously effective. His mind, in a real and material sense, had a firmer grasp on the ideas of the moment than those who opposed . And a way to express it so that all who heard, then and centuries since, could grasp what he wanted them to grasp with him.
Part II: Amazing Grace
If you read enough about Abraham Lincoln, you see a continuous pattern in how he viewed his relationship with others. Lincoln was startlingly self aware and reflective. As a result, he had the supremely empowering ability to accurately evaluate and understand his impact on any relationship, whether positive or negative.
In The Art of Leadership and Self-Deception, The Arbinger Institute refers to the ability Lincoln exhibited as “getting out of the box.” In any situation of conflict, the most common response of those involved is to have an unrealistic view of their role in the conflict. They are more likely to focus on the other party’s deficiencies to substantiate beliefs that justify their feelings of anger hurt or frustration. This perpetuates self-deception.Once self-deceived, they see the others involved as obstacles to the outcomes they desire. Often they miss opportunities to value the points of view or inputs of others and take constructive action to effectively manage the best outcomes. In short, they are “in a box” where it is impossible to see the problem objectively.
One of the most telling stories that illustrates Lincoln’s tremendous capacity to “get out of the box” came shortly after a personally difficult defeat in his bid for a seat in the United States Senate in 1855. It plays out amidst the backdrop of a high profile patent infringement case involving Cyrus McCormack, the inventor of the McCormack Reaper, and a local Illinois manufacturer, The John Manny Company. Since the case was to be tried in Illinois, Lincoln was hired by the Manny Company’s Philadelphia based law firm because of his familiarity with the Illinois legal landscape and the judge presiding over the case. Fresh off of his stinging political defeat, Lincoln threw his energy into preparing the high profile case, recognizing that this was a tremendous opportunity to further his legal career. It was becoming painfully clear to him, he had little future in politics.
Lincoln spent countless hours meticulously constructing his argument, even traveling to the factory to actually examine the machine. As fate would have it, the case was moved to Cincinnati and Lincoln’s services were no longer required. Unfortunately for Lincoln, though eventually fortunate for history, no one ever let Lincoln know that he was no longer on the case. True to form, he continued to prepare in earnest. He arrived in Cincinnati at the start of the case only to be met by his client and Edwin M. Stanton, an established Ohio lawyer who had since been hired to try the case. Stanton looked at Lincoln and said to his client, “Why did you bring that damned long armed ape here….he does not know anything and can do you no good” Stanton went on to argue the case himself. Lincoln provided his written argument to the legal team that no longer included him and spent the week observing the proceedings from the audience. Though he stayed in the same hotel and ate dinner in the establishment as the legal team trying the McCormack case, they never invited him to join him or asked his council on any matter. His humiliation was complete.
Lincoln’s response to what had to have been a tremendously embarrassing and difficult time shows his truly remarkable immunity to personal insult or bitterness and his empowering, nearly divine capacity for grace. Lincoln described Stanton’s performance as, “so finished and elaborated, and so thoroughly prepared.” As confident as Lincoln was in his abilities as an attorney, and he was confident, he realized that Stanton was the better man for the job. He continued, “For any rough and tumble case (and a pretty good one too), I am enough for any man we have out in the country; but these college-trained men are coming West. They have had all the advantages of a life-long training in the law…..Soon they will be in Illinois…and when they appear, I will be ready” He went home to, “study the law.” Even more remarkably, he was so impressed by Stanton’s performance, six years later he appointed him Secretary of War. Lincoln held no grudge and Stanton grew to respect and love his Commander and Chief, standing by him on the night of his assassination and declaring, “Here lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” No longer, in Stanton’s eyes, a “damned long armed ape.”
In this example, we see clearly the depth and eventual impact of Lincoln’s grace and magnanimity. He could reasonably have felt entitled to argue the case. He could have reasonably felt bitterness and contempt towards Stanton, especially in light of his behavior. He wasn’t though. He remained clear eyed and “out of the box” and as a result he resolved to better himself and eventually choose Stanton to be one of the most effective cabinet members the United States Government has ever seen. This pattern was consistent whether it be with his cabinet, his generals or the American public as a whole and was one defining characteristics that made Lincoln, Lincoln.
Part III: The Darkness
In February of 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s son William Wallace Lincoln died at the age of 11. Willie, as he was called, had fallen ill and succumbed to typhoid, an unfortunately common occurrence of the times. Somewhere between the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Lincoln lost and buried a child. His wife Mary, emotionally fragile to start, was inconsolable. She locked herself away from her husband and other young son, Tad, who was also gravely ill with the same disease. Lincoln continued on as head of state and Commander in Chief through a personal darkness that continued through the war. Willie was the son that was most like his father. Lincoln’s grief was exhaustive. Standing over the body of his son before he broke into uncontrollable sobbing, Lincoln muttered. “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
During my last deployment to Iraq, tragedy fell on my family. A few weeks after I had deployed, my middle son, then two and a half, began to show significant developmental regression. He began to speak less and less and eventually fell into a listless, unresponsive state, barely aware of his surroundings. Two months into the deployment, he was diagnosed with autism. My wife emailed me the news. I read it at my desk in the operations center of the task force I was attached to. Shortly after, my Commanding Officer sent me home for three weeks to be with my family. I will be forever grateful for his compassion. The three weeks away from the problems of war saved my family. Even with that break, though, the pressure was too much for me to take. When I finally returned home from that deployment, having gone back to Iraq for the final three months, I was a shell of the man I was before. I wouldn’t be the same for a long time.
I aim to make no comparisons between myself and Abraham Lincoln. Only to provide context and insight for our analogous experiences. Lincoln had not the luxury of time nor relief from responsibility that I had. Amazingly though, he was grief stricken but somehow not defeated, as I had been. “There sat the man, with a burden on his brain at which the world marvels — bent now with the load at both heart and brain.” Nathanial Parker wrote. Yet he continued on for three more years of death, doubt and crisis, eventually delivering our nation from its own destruction. The human toll of the Lincoln story is one that cannot be lost.
History gets the facts right, most of the time. It sometimes gets the motivation or strategy of its cast of characters right too. It rarely remembers their humanity though. It tells us that FDR had been paralyzed by illness from the waste down. But it does a lesser job to tell us what he was feeling when, at 39, he suddenly lost the ability to do most things that he had been able to do his whole life. It tells us George Washington cast off the yoke of British imperialism, but says much less about the sleepless nights he faced as the full weight of his actions sank in when the future had not yet been written into our textbooks. History tells us that between 1861 and 1865, 600,000 men lost their lives to combat or disease while Abraham Lincoln through force of will and genius preserved the union and eradicated slavery in America. It tells us less about the broken heart that beat in his chest while he did it.
A few weeks before he was assassinated, and shortly after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln described a dream that he had to an associate. He had dreamed that he saw a funeral in the White House, and had assumed it was for the President. Some have used this story to illustrate a sort of premonition or an acceptance his resigned fate. I know the truth too well though. I lived it. This was the first of many sleepless nights that John Wilkes booth spared him as the stress of crisis and personal loss drained from his conscience. More than a three story marble statue or a stoic face on our currency, Lincoln was a man. He was a man who’s suffering and pain helped crease the history of our nation, but a man; no more, no less.
Part IV: Greatness
The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were something that millions of children have learned about in elementary schools over the last 150 years. The story tells of the great debates that effectively chronicle the differing points of view between abolitionist and pro-slavery America on the eve of Civil War. The nuance that gets missed is what actually highlights the greatness of our 16th President.
By 1858, Stephen Douglas was a political titan. He had been a member of the Senate for the better part of the past two decades and was a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the 1860 Presidential election. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a virtual political nobody. Yet his performance during the series of seven debates gained him national attention, though he lost the Senate election that provided the venue.
Imagine an upstart taking on a modern political stalwart like Ted Kennedy or Bob Dole and beating him so soundly on substance alone that it propelled him to national attention. Lincoln stood, awkward with his freakishly tall frame and ill-fitting clothing, delivering in his high-pitched voice words of heavy consequence.
“I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest”
We see this pattern of understated reputation giving way to recognized greatness even in his selection as nominee for 1860 presidential election. Though the 1860 Republican National Convention was held in his own state of Illinois, Lincoln was only able to secure the third most votes in the first ballot behind Republican powerhouses William Seward and Salmon Chase. As a result of secondary and tertiary ballots, jockeying between rivals eventually concluded in Lincoln securing the nomination.
Lincoln started as a third choice and ended up on Mount Rushmore. We see it again when general after general initially dismissed his inexperienced guidance when in the end, Lincoln had the wisdom to understand, from the beginning, that the only military objective that mattered was to destroy the Confederate Army, not to hold territory or win battles. The Confederate ability to take up arms and continue to fight was the war. He ran through a half dozen generals before he finally found one that got it.
Again, in 1863 when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, or due process of prosecution, one of the foundational tenets of our basic rights of Americans, a public outcry began to boil over. He responded by penning a letter released in the press. The argument in the letter was so sound that even his political opponents, and he had many, wandered away from the fight, realizing they were in over their heads if they chose to take on the logic of Lincoln. Even the most optimistic idealist would be hard pressed to imagine that happening today.
So what made Lincoln, Lincoln. Put plainly, his greatness. He was a man stirred by a common motivation. All he desired was to live a life that left a mark. Like most men of substance, he had principled beliefs. Most notably, he believed that ideals needed to be consistent. They needed to make sense and be explained in an honest way. If all men were created equal, then all men were created equal and believing in policies to the contrary void that initial belief.
He didn’t have uncommon principals. What made him uncommon was his thoughts and his words and his temperament. What made him so a titan of our history was what he actually did in service to preservation of the very Union that has gone on to dominate the landscape of the modern world as we know it. If Abraham Lincoln, carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, looked to his right, he would find men who originated from wealth and privilege and education, yet had no greater impact on his country or the legacy of America than he did. It is literally accurate to say that no man in the history of our country traveled from such humble beginnings to such heights with such dramatic consequence.
Lincoln’s legacy as Edwin Stanton rightfully put it, “…belongs to the ages.” A century and a half later, it still does.