Why Lincoln’s tops with me
This column is being written on Presidents Day 2019 and concerns the two men for whom the holiday was coined.
A little more than a decade ago, I discussed favorite presidents with another, likely less amateur historian – then-state House Speaker Jody Richards. The speaker said his choice was George Washington and gave a brief but effective explanation of why our nation’s first president was, in his opinion, our best.
It’s hard to quibble with that choice, if only because Washington could have assumed the powers of a king, but didn’t. Also, while he may not have been a brilliant military tactician, Washington’s leadership during and after the Revolutionary War is one reason a ragtag collection of colonies eventually became a world power that’s used that power mostly for the good.
I told the speaker he made some great points, and not just because he was my boss at the time. Then I quickly laid out my case for the man born near Hodgenville in 1809. This is a longer version of my reasoning:
While no saint – he was a politician, after all – Abraham Lincoln was a kind and extraordinarily empathetic man. First-hand stories of his gentle nature are legion.
He loved animals. As a young man, he came upon children that were putting hot coals on a turtle, scraped the coals from the poor animal’s back and told the kids that a turtle or ant’s life was as sweet to them as ours is to us. His good friend, Joshua Speed of Louisville, told of a day when Lincoln was a circuit-riding lawyer and fell behind the other men in the party because he’d found two baby birds and was hunting for their nest. When he caught up to the group, they laughed at him, but Lincoln replied, “I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother.”
As president, he had to be forcibly stopped from racing into a burning stable to save several horses, among them his late son Willie’s favorite pony.
Lincoln was not only our tallest president, but our funniest, a master story-teller whose tales usually had a point and who didn’t mind when the joke was on him. This was a favorite of a judge who Lincoln practiced before in Illinois: “I feel like I once did when I met a woman riding horseback in the woods. As I stopped to let her pass, she also stopped, and, looking at me intently, said: ‘I do believe you are the ugliest man I ever saw.’ Said I, ‘Madam, you are probably right, but I can’t help it!’ She replied, ‘No, you can’t help it, but you might stay at home!’”
Lincoln knew many thought he was homely, though witnesses say when he told one of his “little stories,” his countenance transformed, and the sadness inherent in his face slipped away. He was secure in whom he was, and in his abilities, and thus was not afraid to turn the other cheek when a critic said or did something that would provoke in many a lifelong grudge. These qualities were evident in his second Inaugural Address, delivered as the Civil War was ending and just a month before his assassination.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln used humor, empathy and decency and great political skills to guide the nation during the Civil War, though he was beset by fierce criticism from members of his own party who thought he was doing too much of something, or not enough of it. Abolitionists thought he should have attempted to free the slaves sooner; Lincoln believed that if he did that, he’d lose the support he needed to restore the union.
A few days before his murder, Lincoln toured the recently-taken city of Richmond, where he was greeted by a group of slaves who fell to their knees before him. Taken aback, the president asked them to rise and told them to kneel only to God. “Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as he gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years,” he said. Happy Presidents Day. P.S. Dear Anonymous: Last week’s column was chock-full of irony, which I understand is good for the blood. Please drop a line – I won’t tell anyone where you live.