This week marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Though millions of his contemporaries flocked to pay their final respects to America’s 16th president, the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s death has gone relatively unremarked. That is unfortunate, because there is still so much we could learn by carefully studying his example and by seeking to imitate him.

Lincoln is widely, if somewhat vaguely, remembered as a great president. We think of him as the “Great Emancipator” and the author of the Gettysburg Address, or perhaps simply as the man who saved the Union.

Those were indeed great achievements, but we cannot hope to emulate them because such extraordinary deeds are only possible in times of extraordinary crisis.

Instead of focusing only on what Lincoln accomplished, we would do better to study the habits of judgment and patterns of conduct — that is to say, the virtues — that enabled him to accomplish so much and then to consider how we might learn and practice them ourselves.

Whole books have been written about Lincoln’s character, but in honor of the anniversary of his passing, let me note three of Lincoln’s virtues we, today, most need to see more of.

First, Lincoln had integrity: he was principled but not ideological. He was guided by a few, key moral principles, but he did not pretend to have a ready answer to every problem. Chief among his principles was his commitment to what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Though he was an absolutist at this level of principle, he was flexible and pragmatic when it came to making policy. Much as he loathed slavery, he did not at first demand that it be immediately abolished, because he did not think the goal could be accomplished without war. Even during the early stages of the Civil War, he did not insist upon emancipation, both because he doubted whether he had the constitutional authority to free the slaves and because he was not yet persuaded there was sufficient political support in the north to wage a war for abolition.

He only issued the Emancipation Proclamation after it became clear that liberating slaves in the areas still in rebellion could be justified as a measure necessary to the successful conduct of the war. And, as soon as he thought it would be possible, he sought and achieved passage of the 13th Amendment, enshrining the principle of equal liberty into our country’s fundamental law.

Second, Lincoln was modest. That is not to say he was a shrinking violet. To the contrary, he was fiercely ambitious and worked hard to gain public office. But the object of his ambition was never to win adulation for himself or to enjoy the trappings of office; it was only to promote the public good, as best he could.

He was probably more deeply reviled than any other American president, before or since, but he refrained from personal attacks on his opponents. When engaged in political debate, he did not try to reduce his opponents’ arguments to a caricature but instead responded to his adversary’s best points. That is why the transcripts of Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas are still so widely taught and studied.

Though Lincoln felt certain that his principles were correct, he was deeply aware of his own fallibility, and in his second inaugural address suggested that the terrible cost of the Civil War should be seen as God’s just punishment for the sin of American slavery, in which both north and south had been complicit. Promising to heal the wounds of war, he proposed to act with “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” — candidly admitting that his understanding of justice would necessarily be limited.

Finally, he was both morally and personally courageous. He stood for his principles, even when they were unpopular, for example when he opposed the Mexican War in Congress and later when he insisted on fighting to save the Union. Nor did he fear for his own life. He regularly traveled around Washington with no security detail, and he faced mortal danger when he visited soldiers at the front.

In the end, those virtues cost Lincoln his life, and for that reason, we might not wish to emulate him. But we should also remember that they were fundamental to what made his life so supremely worth living.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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