The Understanding of Lincoln’s personality.
The log cabin was a symbol of the frontiersman of 1800s western expansion of America; it signified the self-reliance of the individual to utilize one’s own resources, regardless of their social standing. The log cabin was also a symbol of isolation and poverty, but with it comes the hopeful outlook of a better tomorrow.
In 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, a poor frontiers family in Hardin County, Kentucky. When Abraham was 7 years old, his family moved to Indiana, where they built a small log cabin on their farmland. While we see the log cabin now as something adventurous and exciting; for Abraham, it was the symbol of pain and misery. The Lincolns only lived in the cabin for a year before his mother died from a sickness called Brucellosis, and completely devastated the family. The family was already on modest means, and then Abraham’s older sister, Sarah, tried to take housekeeping responsibilities for the family at the age of 12. One surprising positive that came out of his childhood was that Thomas Lincoln soon remarried Sarah Bush, who bucked the evil stepmom stereotype and was able to see something special in Abraham that no one could see and was a constant encouragement to young Abe.
It wasn’t obvious that this young boy was destined for greatness; his own cousin, John Hanks thought Abe was “somewhat dull… not a brilliant boy, but worked his way by toil: to learn was hard for him, but he worked slowly but surely.” His father was not much help either in encouraging higher aspirations, but his stepmother saw the budding growth of inner strength in what others saw as lagging behind. She saw that Abe wasn’t necessarily slow to learn, but more that he desired to know more deeply. He would repeat concepts over and over until he understood fully what it meant. This desire to understand fully pushed him to the love of reading.
Books became his most prized possession; everywhere he went he would carry a book with him and break it out to read whenever he had a spare moment. Since books were in scarce supply on the western frontier, he treasured them all the more and focused on gleaning as much insight from the books as possible. Any scrap of paper he could find was used to write down notes from his readings, and when he ran out of paper, he would carve into board his notes until he could transfer them to new sheets of paper. This ever-present sense of scarcity propelled Abraham to have such a deep and intentional act towards reading that he would read the same books over and over again that he could recite much of the books from memory. This helped Abraham to become such a great orator later on since he had large wealth of stories ingrained into his mind for recall.
This love for books that Lincoln had wasn’t just for entertainment and to escape from the simplicity of the frontier life, but Lincoln saw them as tools that unlocked potential within him. He may not had identified that early on, but he was laying the foundation of growth within him; to escape the frontier life literally, not just in his imagination. Lincoln later recalled that the printing press was one of the world’s greatest inventions since it allowed people from all walks of life to be liberated from their simple-minded ways and see how they were, “utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement.” In the years that followed, he would expand his base for learning to more than just books as he continued to move further and further away from the barren lands of knowledge. He was starting from a much lower place than those he would work with in the White House 40 years later, but he lay a strong foundation for him to build himself up that grew exponentially with every new insight he discovered.
While his step-mother was an avid supporter of young Abe’s quest for learning, his father was too beaten down by life’s struggles to believe his son could rise out of low class status of his family. Thomas Lincoln was stern with Abe and made him work heavily on the family farm and even hired him out to work on other neighbor’s farms as well. But Lincoln despised this work as it always came at the expense of his time to read, so whenever Lincoln could spare a break, he would perch himself under a tree and read, which this proclivity to take breaks gave Abraham the reputation of being a lazy laborer which Thomas would scold Abraham and throw him back into work. This open opposition towards Abraham’s quest for education drove a wedge between them and Abraham had little relationship with his father and had very little to say of him.
When Lincoln became an adult, he set out on his own and settled in the town of New Salem, Illinois, where he would live for the next 6 years. It would be this emergence of personal independence and a clean slate that the first spark of Lincoln’s political career was ignited. After only living in New Salem for 6 months, Lincoln announced himself as a candidate to the state House of Representatives . He would place 8th in the ballots in the 1832 election, but would win the county representative position the following election in 1834. New Salem would be the start of new opportunities for Lincoln, but it also introduced the counterweight of depression as well. After living in New Salem for a few years, he began courting a young woman named Ann Rutledge, and while there aren’t many clear details into their relationship, it appears that they had the intent of marriage in the near future. But then in the summer of 1835, Ann came down with typhoid fever and died shortly after. Lincoln was devastated and fell into a deep depression that left him listless and numb to reality. While months later he would recover, the weight of her loss loomed over him for the rest of his life and probably aggravated later episodes of depression later in life.
After Ann’s death, Lincoln moved to Springfield, where he would live until his presidential election and is commonly referred to as Lincoln’s “home.” Lincoln had received his license to practice law and moved to Springfield to work with John Stuart, but he was penniless and discouraged when he arrived in Springfield. He first went to a general store to inquire about lodging provisions, when the clerk, Joshua Speed, priced bedding and pillows at $17, Lincoln became overwhelmed and declared he would need to buy on credit and would only have a chance to repay by Christmas. With a downcast sigh that he was here to “experiment as a lawyer” and that “if I fail at this, I do not know that I can ever pay you.” Speed then provided a alternative solution and said that his room above the store could support a roommate and offered Lincoln to stay there instead. Lincoln’s demeanor changed dramatically as he wasted no time to hurry up the stairs and dropped off his luggage, he then came back down stairs with beaming delight declared, “Well Speed, I am moved!” Thus began one of the two most important relationships in Lincoln’s life as Joshua Speed remained Lincoln’s closest and dearest friend.
In 1839, Lincoln met Mary Todd, and the two quickly began a courtship. After a while, Lincoln began to have doubts about his affection for her and broke off the relationship. Instead of relief he experienced deep heartache, and in addition to this, his best friend Joshua informed Lincoln that he was moving to Kentucky. The compounding loss of the two most intimate relationships in his life triggered another debilitating depression to the point that all sharp objects were removed from his room for fears that he would commit suicide. In his depression, he wrote to his partner, Stuart, declaring that he was, “The most miserable man living… If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” In one deep conversation Speed had with Lincoln, Speed warned him of the severity of Lincoln’s condition and that he needed to find a way to pull himself out otherwise he would surely die. Lincoln responded that death didn’t concern him but what did was that he had, “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived, and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day and generation and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”
In his grief, he revealed a driving force for him: To live a life worth remembering. When he read the many books that impacted his life, he saw how the contributions of those whose lives had passed before he was born was still influencing and shaping him. He wanted to be able to lead a life that history would have use for to guide others, but now being 30 years old and having mediocre success and to now feel the isolation brought the despair of ever living the life he desired.
With time and refocusing his energy on studying law, he slowly climbed out of the darkness of his mind. The following summer he traveled to Kentucky to visit Speed that proved to boost his spirits. The opportunity to right his wrongs came when Speed entered an engagement and also had second thoughts about the upcoming wedding, for which Lincoln encouraged him to fight through the fear and follow through.
Lincoln’s emotional rawness and immaturity led him to being vulnerable of other unsafe acts as well. In 1842, the State Bank of Illinois had been forced to close, and the state auditor, James Shields, supported the declaration that the bank issued notes would no longer be valid. Lincoln then decided to write an opinion piece in a local newspaper mocking Shields. Shields then challenged Lincoln to a duel, which Lincoln declared the weapon of choice would be broadswords. He did this so that when they arrived at the duel site, he swung his sword around and cut off high tree branches to display his superior reach and strength. The ploy worked and the combatants agreed upon a truce. This came as a wake up call to Lincoln and saw how that level of belittling and destroying of one’s ego causes more destruction than the personal satisfaction that can be served. It also marked the end of childish behavior as he and Mary renewed their relationship and were married shortly after.
Abraham’s marriage with Mary is a complex one. Lincoln was introspective and carried a more melancholic personality with bright spots of humor, while Mary was highly extroverted and a fiery personality that drove her emotions to extreme ends of the spectrum. They got in many heated arguments and when things would go beyond Lincoln’s emotional control, he would wall up and control his emotions internally while Mary would push back on that wall with doubled rage. Those on the outside who witnessed these outburst or heard about rumors of these quarrels assumed much of the love and support had left the relationship and the relationship continued out of public image. But what is missed is the deep support they had for each other; their quarrels were lively, but they came from a place of trust and honesty. They did not carry resentment beyond the quarrel and Mary remained one of Abraham’s strongest advocate and supporter during his political career.
A Powerful Personality through Empathy:
One of the most prevalent titles of Abraham Lincoln is the name, “Honest Abe.” We’re taught that Lincoln succeeded by being the good guy and doing the right thing; but placing the simplistic stamp of “good” over Abraham Lincoln diminishes the deep and complex personality that made a young Abraham into Honest Abe. In order to understand how Lincoln was able accomplish where many others have failed; to withstand when others crumbled, we need to dive into the mind and emotions of Abraham Lincoln.
As we look into many accomplishments and events in Lincoln’s life, many characteristics emerge: Honesty, Magnanimity, Compassion, Patience, Resiliency, Melancholy, Humor, Strategic, Persuasiveness, and Decisive. These all are powerful traits, but there’s a common thread that unites these all together, and it’s Lincoln’s extraordinary depth of empathy. He possessed the incredible capacity of stepping into another’s shoes and feeling what they feel; and to look at the situation from their point of view. But early on this ability primarily expressed itself in the form of conduct with animals. When he was eight years old he shot a wild turkey, but when he went to retrieve the turkey, he was traumatized by the destruction he had caused to the life of an animal. When he recalled this memory, he said he had, “never since pulled a trigger on any larger game.” Once in school, his classmates obtained a turtle and would place hot coals on the turtle’s back to watch it wriggle, which Lincoln protested and said it was wrong to harm the animal for entertainment. Lincoln also once tracked back half a mile to rescue a pig stuck in a mire for the sole purpose of “just to take a pain of his own mind.” He was incredibly sensitive to suffering and would try his best to provide a remedy to others because he internalized that pain. The final example highlights more of the internal emotion that Lincoln experienced and that is the true sense of empathy; he inconvenienced himself to rescue a simple pig not because of any attachment to that animal, but he internalized the anguish that another life was experienced and the only way to relieve his infected pain was to remove that pain from the pig.
The pain this compassion and empathy produces leads us to understand another prevailing characteristic of Lincoln, and that is his melancholy. We’ve observed his bouts of depression when Ann Rutledge died, and when he broke off his engagement with Mary Todd at the same time as his best friend moving away, but melancholy is different than depression. Melancholy is more of the outward expression of the weight of other’s pains that followed him everywhere, while depression was more fueled by the traumatic events that he personally experienced.
With having this shadow of pain that stems from observing others’ pain, drove Lincoln to be an expert in remedying pain in others. He perfected the skill of storytelling and impeccable timing with humor that allowed him to lift the spirits around those near him; even if he didn’t know the source of their pain, he could turn downcast eyes into smiles and laughter. In the darkest of days during the war, Lincoln was always quick to bring up a humorous story to allow people a brief moment of escape from the looming clouds of despair. When Lincoln became too burden by all this pain during his presidency, his go-to form of relief came from using his skill as a lawyer to read over execution cases and find loopholes to nullify the case against the individual being prosecuted. Saving a life would be a good deed that boosted his spirits and get back to work.
Empathy doesn’t just produce melancholy, but through that melancholy makes one acutely aware of one’s impact on others. We ultimately are driven by self-preservation, it isn’t in itself a negative thing, but when the stakes are high, we tend to dehumanize others and convert them into means to our own ends. Lincoln’s depth of empathy prevented him from resorting to that kind of behavior and even when it came at personal expense, he strove to act in preservation of others; through empathy he found magnanimity.
During Lincoln’s political career, he perfected the art of winning people over through magnanimity. When Lincoln was running for Senate, he was near victory with having 45 of the 51 votes needed to win, but 5 votes were given to Lyman Trumbull by Democratic Senators who could accept voting across party lines. Even though Lincoln had the single most votes in the first ballot, he felt the goal of having someone who opposed the slave-preserving Kansas-Nebraska Act was more important than his own political career and announced his withdrawal and advised all his voters to vote for Trumbull who only had 5 votes. It would pay off later as Trumbull and his team never forgot Lincoln’s deed and would later be critical supporters that helped him win the presidency 6 years later.
When Lincoln was pursuing the Republican nomination, he was seen as the 4th option behind Seward, Chase, and Bates. When Lincoln proved to be the least-opposed option by the election committee, he jumped ahead of them all and became the nominee. After he was elected, he ended up mending the wounds of his rivals by inviting all of them to be part of his innermost circle in the Presidential Cabinet. Lincoln could see the dejection and the blow to their self-esteem that the nobody from Springfield Illinois had surpassed the vast list of accomplishments these other politicians had. Even though they would want to undermine his status, he invited them in because the incredible value they provided that he valued more over his own ego. By laying down his pride, he allowed the most important positions to be held by the most ablest person available, and not by a yes-man that would solidify Lincoln’s authority. When the Union was taken to the brink of complete division and destruction, Lincoln assembled the most capable team even though he had to endure many instances of them undermining his authority.
After the horrific battle of Gettysburg, the current General, George Meade, failed to pursue General Lee, which historians conclude would have almost assured Lee’s surrender. Lincoln made multiple pleas to Meade to pursue, that Meade failed to act on. After Lee escaped, Lincoln wrote an impassioned letter chastising him for prolonging the war and causing the future deaths of thousands more. However, Lincoln never sent the letter since he knew that no positive good would come out of it, and only beat down a soldier who was still mentally and emotionally recovering from the single-most deadly battle in U.S. history.
What we see is how Lincoln’s empathy soon became a tool of influence; he was able to use his sensitivity of others’ feelings to elevate them and to win them over. When it came to the topic of slavery, abolitionists resorted to morality principles or religious principles. Seward made an impassioned speech about how we are subject to a “higher law” and slavery goes against God’s law, which emboldened the abolitionist cause, but it also isolated to southerners who were told that they were immoral people. Lincoln on the other hand claimed that trying to attack slavery on the premise of moral superiority would be like trying to, “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such a man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first understand his heart and thoughts, “the great high road to his reason.” Lincoln stepped into the mind of a slaveholder; saw their beliefs and rationales, then communicated on those principles. He set out to show their very actions indicate the dignity of the slaves and that they were not just property. He showed them how they unanimously voted to end the importation of more slaves into America, and even the piracy of selling imported slaves was punishable by death. Why don’t they treat that way for any other imported good? Other than tariffs, we don’t have logistical or even moral issues with the importation of any livestock, so why slaves? It must mean the slaveholders must hold the slave at a higher moral standard and was not a mere commodity. It was this kind of patience and compassion that Lincoln was able to address the most divisive topic in the country and cause people to reflect and think, rather than to lash out and fight back.
Demonstrating Lincoln’s magnanimity & strategic tact, he set out to convince William Seward to accept the Secretary of State position. Lincoln sent two letter to Seward: one was a standard letter formally offering Seward the position, the second was labeled as private and confidential. Seward was expecting the formality of an offer due to his high status, but with his ego bruised from losing to a nobody, he and the rest of the public expected him to decline. But then Seward opened the second letter that said, “Rumors have got into the newspapers, to the effect that the Department, named above, would be tendered you, as a compliment, and with the expectation that you would decline it. I beg you to be assured that I have said nothing to justify these rumors. On the contrary it has been my purpose, from the day of the nomination at Chicago, to assign you, by your leave, this place in the administration. . . . I now offer you the place, In the hope that you will accept it, and with the belief that your position in the public eye, your integrity ability learning, and great experience, all combine to render it an appointment pre-eminently fit to be made.” Lincoln could feel Seward’s pain, and knew how to come along side him and comfort him and give him the respect he deserved so that he could usher him into a position that would impact a nation.
Lincoln became a pillar in American history not because he was a perfect being that was given every opportunity to succeed, but because he was willing to embrace the pain and relentlessly use the pain to drive towards restoration and wholeness. He challenged fate to create a narrative of compassion in a time full of strife and suffering. He was not going to let the weight of all that was wrong in this world crush him, but leveraged it as the spring to lift others up. That is the Lincoln I see; That is the Lincoln I’m inspired by.