February 12 will be the 211th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. I have always loved Abraham Lincoln. In the view of most presidential historians, he was our greatest president. I went to law school primarily because Lincoln was a lawyer, and he was my hero.
I am not a Lincoln scholar, but I have read many books on his life. And, in my view, he is one of the greatest men ever to live on the earth. I believe he was destined to be President of the United States, preserve the Union, and free the slaves. He fulfilled his destiny gloriously and was taken shortly thereafter (the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, and Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865).
When I think of him, I think of this from the Bible: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
Lincoln was wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. He had to be as wise as a serpent in order to get himself elected president. People who are not shrewd do not become President of the United States. However, his ascension to the Presidency did not involve dishonesty, cruelty, or anything dishonorable on his part.
He was notorious for being kind to everyone, including his political opponents. When friends complained that he had named his enemies to his cabinet, Lincoln said “I want’em close to me where I can keep an eye on ‘em.” One person said to him that he should try to destroy his enemies, but instead he tried to make them his friends. Lincoln responded, “When I make my enemy my friend, have I not destroyed my enemy?”
Lincoln was wise and intelligent. Even though he was self-taught, he never met a man who was his intellectual or political equal, including all the Ivy Leaguers who filled his cabinet. He was a beautiful writer and a masterful public speaker. But, he was also kind, forgiving, gentle, friendly, humble, and self-effacing. And he was extremely funny!
During a debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Douglas accused Lincoln of being “two-faced.” Lincoln responded: “If I were two-faced, do you think I would be wearing this one” (making fun of his homeliness)? Another man said to him, “I used to have a beard like yours, but when I saw how ugly it made me look, it cut it off.” Lincoln replied: “I used to have a face like yours, and when I realized I could not cut it off, I grew this beard.”
Speaking of his kindness, the army was always mad at him because he frequently pardoned soldiers who had gone AWOL. He once said “the army thinks I am cruel because I won’t let them execute their deserters.” He received many requests for pardon, most of which he granted with a note that read “I think this boy will do more good above ground than under it. Pardoned. Signed: A Lincoln.”
Sometimes, when he was angry, and he had a lot to be angry about the way his generals under-performed, he would write a scathing letter to the offending party. Then, he would put the letter in his drawer and wait a day. The next day, he would read the letter again, tear it up (or set it aside), and write a kind letter (doing whatever needed to be done).
Of course, Lincoln wasn’t a perfect man, but the leading publisher of the day, Horace Greeley, said of him that “there was probably no year of his life when [Lincoln] was not a wiser, cooler, and better man than he had been the year before.” (Stefan Lorant, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 218.) By the time he became President, Lincoln had excellent self-discipline. He acted—he did not react. If you were rude to him, he was not rude back. He had amazing self-control. Lincoln was not only an excellent President, he was an excellent man!
I believe one of the main purposes of life is to consistently and incrementally become a better person over time. This also applies to our performance as a grandparent. No one is a perfect grandparent; however, all of us can become a better grandparent, little by little, over time. We shouldn’t feel guilty about what we did not do, or could not do, in the past. We should just think of one little way we could do better in the future.
Recently, I retired after a 40-year career as a lawyer. Upon doing so, I wrote my adult children and asked them for ideas about how I could be a better father and grandfather. I got some good ideas from my daughters that I intend to implement.
Happy birthday to Mr. Lincoln—thank you for saving our country and for giving us an example of how we can improve little by little and become a better person every year of our lives.
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