Learning from Lincoln’s Life: Part I

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Why is it that reading biographies—even those of some of our greatest historical leaders—can be so boring? The uplifting character arcs that we’ve come to expect in novels are absent in biographies. And unlike novels, biographies lack the setups created in the first act that are all tied together by the end of the third act, bringing the whole story to a tidy ending. Reading a biography can even become tedious at times, especially when it is unclear how entire decades of the subject’s life and various personal trials and tragedies fit meaningfully into the overall story.

Nevertheless, biographies can instruct us and encourage us as leaders in ways that fiction cannot. Seeing how the life of a great leader, such as Abraham Lincoln, is not so different from our own can provide us with valuable perspective and encouragement.

Like most of us, Lincoln was born with few advantages. He was from the backwoods of Kentucky and later claimed that the aggregate of all his formal schooling did not amount to one year. Despite his disadvantages, Lincoln never doubted his intelligence and diligently taught himself every chance he could while working on his father’s farm and during a long stint of wandering around Illinois as a young man, trying his hand at everything from owning a store to navigating barges down the Mississippi River. After failure in nearly all his endeavors he became a self-taught (and rather impoverished) lawyer.

His early political career was disjointed and of little note. Far from being on a steady upward trajectory, his path took many detours and plenty of dead ends. His first attempt at running for the state legislature was a failure. On his second attempt he won, but people recognized him more for his immense height and awkward looks than his political prowess. Later he achieved some notoriety as a congressman, but he belonged to the Whig Party, which was soon to become extinct. After his term as a Representative from Illinois ended, he returned to his law practice for almost a decade, believing that his political career was over. In 1858 he tried for the Senate, but after a long and exhausting campaign against Stephen Douglas, he was defeated. Then, much to his surprise and shortly after his defeat, he was nominated by the Republicans to run for President and won.

Even after achieving the presidency, Lincoln’s path forward was not certain or clear. He was in over his head and the weight of the great responsibility of unifying a nation weighed heavily upon him. The Union suffered numerous major defeats at the start of the war and many of the people closest to Lincoln began to express doubts about his ability to lead. In his diary, Attorney General Bates noted, “The President is an excellent man, and, in the main wise but he lacks will and purpose, and, I greatly fear, has not the power to command.” General McClellan had even greater reservations about his Commander in Chief, stating succinctly in a letter, “The president is an idiot.”

But just four years later the North and South were reunited and Lincoln had effectively guided the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln’s life, like many of ours, was full of fits and starts and failures, not gradual and steady progress. We tend to think only of the grand, mythic version of Lincoln and forget about the time he spent drifting down the Mississippi, plodding through another year at his moderately successful law firm, or watching a hard-fought political campaign go up in flames. When we are wandering through uninspiring and difficult phases in our own lives, we would be well served to remember that real life resembles biographies more than novels and that the last page of our stories has not yet been written.

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