In reviewing the indelible effects of certain men on history it’s also important we don’t get too caught up in comparison. Each of us has a divine purpose for being here and is not of any greater or lesser importance. The word “great” may seem to be such a comparison, but I define it thusly: greatness lies not just in what one has accomplished, what one has shared, what one has given, but in what one has overcome.
Abraham Lincoln was a soul intent on obliterating the civil injustices of his time, insofar as he could affect change, and to bust systems that were not serving the greater good. His influence at a pivotal point in American history still permeates today. Many men in the past 150 years have been instrumental in shattering glass ceilings and re-imagining what is possible as Lincoln did; many of those same men would not have been able to accomplish what they have without Lincoln’s shoulders to stand upon. Although Lincoln was an unwavering abolitionist, the actual ending of slavery was the result of the 2 million soldiers in the Union army who brought the Confederacy to its knees, slave rebels in the South, and freed slaves in the north who agitated the cause. In fact, any man who was ever repulsed by the injustice and degradation of his fellow man and had the bravery to stand up for it, especially when doing so was unpopular, can stand alongside Lincoln and take credit. To be sure, there would be no Martin Luther King Jr. if there was no Lincoln, and no President Barack Obama had all those who came before him not paved the way to eradicate human inequality.
Every era brings with it weeds of injustice to uproot in some area of society. Those charged with the task of leading people to release the old and welcome the new often bear enormous burdens, sometimes even untimely death. These visionaries see possibilities yet unmanifested that many deem impossible. It is the visionaries – who are often backed only by their strong conviction, fortitude and courage – who break new ground and often become martyrs for a cause. They are often ahead of their time which is why it seems so many across history’s timeline have been taken out by people who are not able to understand, who are not ready and who are not open to inevitable changes in society.
As such, these men can be viewed as disruptive forces to those who are uncomfortable with anything beyond the status quo. I am a believer in a driving force that compels us forward towards our destinies. What to make of the iron-clad perseverance that led Abraham Lincoln into a position where he could effect real change?
Here is the path he followed:
1816 – His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
1818 – His mother died.
1831 – Failed in business.
1832 – Ran for state legislature – lost.
l832 – Also lost his job – wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
1833 – Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
1834 – Ran for state legislature again – won.
1835 – Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
1836 – Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
1838 – Sought to become speaker of the state legislature – defeated.
1840 – Sought to become elector – defeated.
1843 – Ran for Congress – lost.
1846 – Ran for Congress again – this time he won – went to Washington and did a good job.
1848 – Ran for re-election to Congress – lost.
1849 – Sought the job of land officer in his home state – rejected.
1854 – Ran for Senate of the United States – lost.
1856 – Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention – get less than 100 votes.
1858 – Ran for U.S. Senate again – again he lost.
1860 – Elected president of the United States.
One would be hard-pressed to observe the path Lincoln took to the White House, as he slammed into one door and obstacle after another, and not come to the conclusion there was some type of vision or grander purpose burning in him that simply refused to go out and whose nature almost had a life of its own.
What about the events leading up to his death? His last public speech was the Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. Imagine if you can the end of an extremely gory war; one rare time in history where our weaponry technology far exceeded medical technology – this meant amputations were commonplace and procedures “rudimentary” at best – ouch! This had been the end of a long war extremely divisive and traumatic to a young country. It was in this last speech, that he spoke for the first time publicly of his belief that blacks should be able to vote:
Journalist Noah Brooks, an eyewitness to the speech, said that as Lincoln advanced from his seat, “a roar of applause shook the air, and, again and again repeated, finally died away on the outer fringe of the throng, like a sweeping wave upon the shore. Just at that moment the sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor, and flooded the spectacle with glory and with light.” Brooks said Lincoln told him the next day, “Did you notice that sunburst? It made my heart jump.”
According to Brooks, the audience received the speech in “profound silence,” although some passages provoked cheers and applause. “Looking down into the faces of the people, illuminated by the bright rays of the sun, one could see moist eyes and even tearful faces.
In the background of the play (no pun intended), Lincoln’s comment had incensed John Wilkes Booth, a member of the audience, who vowed, “That is the last speech he will make.” A white supremacist and Confederate activist, Booth made good on his threat three days later. What is even more jolting is that Lincoln had a prophetic dream about his death a few days before the assassination which left him quite disturbed:
Three days prior to his assassination, Abraham Lincoln related a dream he had to his wife and a few friends. According to Ward Hill Lamon, one of the friends who was present for the conversation, the president said:
“About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible.
I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’
Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”
There were starts and stops for the Lincolns around attending the play which would be a fatal event, but his fate was sealed. Perhaps after his long arduous road to fulfilling his purpose, his soul was finished here and it was time for him to go. The footprint he left here was enormous. Ulysses S. Grant called him, “incontestably the greatest man I’ve ever known.” Lincoln was kind, compassionate, almost unerringly wise as he was known to measure the effects of his speech at all times with gravity. He rose to the top through sheer ambition and hard work having had less than twelve months of schooling on the frontier in his youth. He was largely self-educated and became a lawyer without even going to college. Even today, the general consensus among professors, attorneys, historians, authors, and elected officials is that he remains the greatest president in our history. His words more than many American leaders are oft-quoted and are the cells that make up his character:
Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose – and you allow him to make war at pleasure.
Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?
America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.
Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new at all.
Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.
Die when I may, I want it said by those who knew me best that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.
Fourscore 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.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.
I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.
I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.
I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.
I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.
Needless to say his life was one not wasted as he taught and led by example. His funeral alone, a shattering event after an already traumatic severing of the country was a deeply felt, final casualty of the war. His funeral procession was a 14-day event covering 1,700 miles making stops in every city as millions paid their respects to a fallen hero.
Although the death of Lincoln shook a nation to the core there is much to be learned from his life and how we still react to events today. How would some of our choices (or lack thereof and inaction) stand up to the essence of that which he believed? I found a site that published 57 transcripts of sermons given around the time after his death. During the mid to late 19th century sermons were not only the center of social gatherings but were the impetus for argument, dissection and social reaction as groups formed their identities. To stick a thermometer in and get a temperature of the time helps to shed light on the fact that this was no ordinary man who touched down; although he may have been perceived as ordinary and common by himself and others, his purpose and character was quite extraordinary.
He has been compared to Abraham, Moses and Washington as another in the company of great martyrs. If one must compare him to great men of the past to legitimize his path so be it. The point is this: even if he feared and prophesied his own death, he ended up – directly or indirectly – dying for his fierce beliefs and as such, died a hero for the ages.