Our 16th President is much in the news these days, even as we approach the 200th anniversary of his birth. President Barack Obama, as have many Presidents before him, looks to Abraham Lincoln as a role model. Our 44th President has again reminded many that this is a country of great opportunity and anyone can aspire to great things. Abraham Lincoln has long been held up as proof of that possibility.
In celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, we wonder at the enduring affection we feel for a president who came from "nowhere" (a log cabin, no less) and served during the most difficult period in our nation's history. This affection may stem from the fact that Lincoln was practical, easily understood (at least on those matters he attempted to communicate), and he exhibited a foundation of character that enabled him to face challenges no president has faced before or since.
Lincoln was not perfect. It would make him less accessible to us as a role model if he had been. It's worthwhile, however, to consider what character traits Lincoln exhibited that we in the 21st century might emulate.
Lincoln held certain unwavering beliefs. He is credited by many historians with bringing to the fore again the first principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence. He believed in the preservation of a Union consistent with those principles at any cost. With hindsight, it is easy to argue that this belief charted the right course. However, at the time Lincoln charted and stuck with that course, he was supported by only a fragile coalition and faced criticism from all sides.
Lincoln led with humility and humor. He took his job seriously, but never himself. He understood that much lay beyond his control, but he was always striving to do his best. Lincoln's efforts to persuade Gen. George McClellan to take action early in the Civil War illustrate his willingness to place progress before pride. Lincoln went time and again to see McClellan, hat in hand, only to be rebuffed. Although he did finally fire McClellan, he showed that he was more interested in progress than prerogative. He put what he understood to be the national interest ahead of his own.
Lincoln also exhibited a capacity for growth and a willingness to change. This is evidenced by his shift from a policy of containing slavery to an eventual goal of ending slavery. He has been described by historian James McPherson as a "gradual emancipationist." McPherson ably argues that Lincoln's words and conduct must be viewed in the context of his times and the ultimate goals he sought to achieve. Lincoln explained his changing views this way: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
Lincoln was a lawyer. He approached problems thinking like a lawyer. He had a remarkable facility for translating abstract principles into language most could understand. But one need not be trained in the law to see Lincoln as a valuable role model.
Each of us has a role in preserving the first principles expressed in 1776. Our efforts should be practical, easily understood, and based upon a foundation of character to withstand difficult challenges.
Imagine a return to the first principles of the Declaration of Independence led by ordinary citizens. The issues that divide us are different than in Lincoln's time, but the ideals that unite us are perpetual. Lincoln, at Cooper Union, on Feb. 27, 1860, said: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
Lincoln's place in history was not fixed by any single event, but rather by a lifetime of effort resulting in both failure and success. It is a legacy built, in fits and starts, that each of us has a stake in.
Harper Estes is president of the State Bar of Texas. He is a lawyer and mediator in Midland.