I’m listening through the Teaching Company’s excellent course on Abraham Lincoln [We bought it as a Christmas present for our neighbor, then borrowed it from her after she had listened to it. How brilliant is that?]. I’ve been thinking about Lincoln’s life as I listen and writing about it, helps me organize my thoughts into something useful, which is the point of all of this.
First Lesson: The Tides of History are Strong
I once heard the Civil War historian Shelby Foote assert that the two geniuses which the Civil War revealed were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I would agree with his statement. However; had Lincoln not become president at a crucial time historically, we would not be talking about him today. He would have been an above average, poilitically-connected lawyer in Illinois to the end of his days. Even if Lincoln had become president, had the Civil War not happened, he would have been an interesting president, in a long line of other presidents, but nothing special; think of James Buchanan or Bill Clinton. So Lincoln would not have been considered “great” and literally thousands of books would not have been written about him, had he not been president during the Civil War. He was swept up by the tides of history and it was the tides that exposed his greatness [by tides, both Lincoln and I would argue, that this is the Providence of God; but I am thinking from a human standpoint].
The point that I’m trying to make is that greatness comes from being exposed to great, crucial, historically relevant events, and being great in those events. As an example, Albert Sidney Johnson was one of the South’s most experienced and admittedly great leaders. Jefferson Davis considered him the greatest general in the southern armies [which he probably was]; however, Johnson was killed at the battle of Shiloh [for lack of a tourniquet, sadly], and is barely remembered today, because he was killed so early in the war.
Lincoln had absolutely zero control of the great events that swept him [almost by accident – think Providence] into office in 1860. Indeed, at the time, it was considered crass to campaign for office [oh for history to go back to that model]; so how is it that Lincoln was elected? One can explain the events, but behind those events are the strong tides of history in which Lincoln was swept up along with everyone else, and which swept Lincoln to presidential victory.
This is particularly relevant because we are living in very crucial historical times, perhaps as crucial in the hindsight of history as the Civil War. Choices, decisions, and actions that are made now, will have far-reaching historical consequences [think of President Bush’s decisions to go into Afghanistan and Iraq; think 9/11; think financial crisis; think Greece]. We are living in perhaps as critical historical times as we’ve had in this nation. How will history look back and judge the big movers and shakers; the people who happened to be in a place to make decisions at the time? We can only guess, because we will not be here then. I will propose some guesses as I make my way through Lincoln’s life (there are interesting parallels).