Mr. Lincoln, it is written, differed from many of his peers in two ways. He was smarter than the other men around him concerning the things he cared about at all and he worked out of a kind of respectful humility that deepened as his empathy grew for others.
Mr. Lincoln was self-taught in law, surveying, inventing (he is the only US president to have a patented invention) and religion. Yes, religion, a field he looked over scrupulously, once producing an anti-religious tract so poisonous his friends destroyed every copy and the plates from which it was imprinted. Yet, he knew his Bible, more deeply than any of the frontier preachers he encountered in his life time and at least as well as the trained theologians he met later in life.
He rose above better connected men. Seward, his Secretary of State, who thought he, Seward, would serve as Prime Minister in the Lincoln administration, wrote of Lincoln, after a few months working with him, saying Lincoln “…is the best of us.” In that “us” was included Mr Lincoln’s opponents in the 1860 election, as well as men within and without his cabinet who had more of everything than Lincoln, outwardly, and less of everything than Lincoln, inwardly.
So, the most impressive items in a discussion of Mr. Lincoln’s abilities are these two; his massive intellect and his abiding humility. Mr. Lincoln said of his learning ability, “My mind is like a piece of steel. One cannot easily scratch a mark on it but, once the mark is made, it is even harder to remove.” He was a slow learner, he thought, but an able retainer. He excelled at politics and was fortunate enough to be born in a time and place where his particular political skills were fitted to the national emergency.
And, he went beyond the political imbroglio of his day, able to do so by means of a deep humility. In a religious sense, which Mr. Lincoln recognized and applauded, humility is not contrition, though there is nothing at all wrong with contrition, so long as it does not rob a person of his ability to act, by which I mean, to make the hard decision.
Lincoln’s humility was religious in its character. That is, he understood this fact; true humility is to favor the will of God over one’s own will, or the will of his fellows. Lincoln continually announced he would do nothing out of malice, which sounds fine, except that everyone else in his day on his side wanted revenge, vengeance, retribution, gloating smugness, the reduction of the White South to penury deep enough to last one hundred years. Alone among them all, Lincoln, the visionary, could see where America stood in his day on the bright, sunlit porch of world domination (yet nearly a century away) and write the words, “With malice for none and charity for all…” after quoting a short Bible passage the frontier preachers probably did not know.
William Lee Miller, the historian, could write of Mr. Lincoln, in comparison to his chosen general, George McClellan, that the difference between the two men is in the size of their head (ego). Mr. Lincoln, coming from virtually nothing and reaching the vertiginious height, grew only more humbled by the enormity of his rise, while Mr. McClellan, rising to a lesser height from a higher starting spot (and this by Lincoln’s own hand) only grew more full of himself.
Mr. Lincoln, then, could put several movements whirling, spin them occasionally to continue their motion, then suddenly abandon one for the other, allowing the less promising to crash to the floor, while choosing the better option he had given himself some time before. He carried the Emancipation Proclamation around in his coat pocket, rather than his stove pipe hat, which he often used as a briefcase and a desk, for nearly a year, waiting for one of his generals to get him the kind of victory out of which freedom might come, but only used it when he got the kind of victory from which freedom might come and make a sustainable difference.
He was probably wrong about the bloody stalemate at Antietam but surely right about the other timing aspects of his move and, so, against the express wishes of the Republican Radicals he would later need, he made his proclamation. When he issued his limited, contradictory, probably illegal proclamation, he also locked in the Radicals he would need for passage of the thirteenth amendment in 1865 in the House of Representatives. He kept that plate spinning for more than two years and through a contested second term race against a man who would have been nothing without Lincoln (at least nothing more than the talented egomaniac he started out to be) George B. McClellan.
McClellan, unlike Lincoln, had proven himself able to take every apparent advantage and turn it into despair. He hated his sponsors and said so, aloud and in print, to his wife, who leaked his opinions to the print media, and then directly to the media themselves. McClellan thought himself to be the architect of his own great climb. He did not reverence the ones who helped put him there, so his greatest victories in war would be over his own allies. He did not lack imagination or intellect or pride or position. He did find himself out to be lacking in humility and, so, in confidence to do the great thing, the one great thing that would have made him President, like Grant. He just could not do and history, if it tells us nothing else, tells us that it, history, favors those who will act.