Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Better Angels of our Nature

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, one of the defining moments in the history of the greatest republic the world has known. So far, it seems to be marked the public largely by apathy and inattention. For nerds like myself, however, with an abiding interest in history and the human condition, it is a time for reflection on any number of things --- from the follies of Mankind to the extraordinary good fortune that has blessed this country from its inception.

My current book is Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her Pulitzer Prize winning study of the unique and self-made genius of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, illustrates the subtle and often-happenstance differences that mark the difference between good men and great ones. Lincoln, blessed with a gifted mind but suffering the handicap of little formal education, shared the same drive toward accomplishment that propels many talented people to make something of their lives. But his kindly, gentle disposition --- and the struggles he had to endure to overcome an impoverished upbringing, hardships that would have crippled most lesser men --- gave him advantages that let him transcend much of the petty partisan bickering that afflicted his era, as well as our own.

Often derided as ignorant and unfit for office by those who did not know him, Lincoln emerges as a forceful and visionary leader with an impeccable sense of timing --- or blessed with incredible luck, which may be another way of saying the same thing. Sweet-tempered and considerate to those around him, he nevertheless possessed an iron will and drive to make himself into someone worthy of the esteem of his countrymen. And it was a profound blessing upon his country that he emerged, virtually from nowhere, at precisely the moment his country needed a hero.

His kindness and magnanimity still shines through the ages, and he was loved by all who came to know him well, including those who felt cheated and betrayed by his nomination: his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860, whom he wisely invited into his Cabinet. Sensing the the country needed the strongest leaders he could find, his matchless ability to juggle conflicting egos, emotions, and ideologies among the various pro-Union factions held the country together, and brought out the very best in those strong personalities whose help he needed to save our still-young Republic.

Lincoln was roundly criticized by virtually everyone during his day, for failing to adhere to their own prescribed agendas for the country. His election resulted in the South's seccession, but at the same time he was viewed as vacillating and soft by the radicals for his cautious approach to the issue that was tearing the country apart: slavery. Those who knew him, though, saw this caution for what it was --- an unwillingness to push a fractured country further than it was ready to go, even as he struggled to keep the Nation together. A lesser man, or one of more ideological rigidity, may well have pushed the country over the cliff by racing to abolish what was recognized as the American Curse. And as he maneuvered to keep Europe --- whose mills needed Southern cotton rendered unavailable by the Northern blockade of Southern ports --- from intervening in the conflict on the side of the Confederacy Yet he always pressed in the direction of freedom and equality for all, and when he sensed that the shift in public sentiment had matured sufficiently to set the Nation on the course of freedom for all its citizens, he was resolute in his actions, and determined to keep the country he loved from sliding back.

With all the Herculean challenges and sorrows Lincoln had to confront, what comes through most clearly is his humanity and elemental goodness. His sense of humor was legendary, and his generosity, sweetness of temper, and kind-heartedness inspired love and devotion in everyone who came to know him well. He was able to be magnanimous in defeat as well as victory, and seemed unable to hold a grudge, even against people who meant him harm --- traits as sorely lacking in the politicians of today as they were in Lincoln’s time. The difference appears to have been the character and temperament of Lincoln himself.

Oddly enough, one of the things that resonates most about Goodwin’s portrait of the Lincoln Administration is how closely the small and petty minds of his day resemble those of our own. Fortunately for the country, an unknown candidate appeared from nowhere just when his country needed him, with the intellectual gifts and sense of vision that proved to be exactly what was needed to rescue American from its own follies. In our own day --- with follies abounding, and narrow-minded pettiness all but a job requirement for political office --- it is hard to see how a modern Lincoln can ever emerge. Yet though perhaps not as daunting as the challenges facing the country as it confronted the American curse of slavery, those we face today threaten our financial and cultural future in ways we are only now beginning to realize. And if we have really sunk to the level of being unable to produce a leader equal to the challenges that confront us, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel Clouds of Darkness, the compelling third volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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