The Petty Source of Lincoln’s Greatness
This year’s celebration of the Fourth of July is amplified by the sesquicentennial of the Union victory at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The holiday will no doubt serve up the requisite dose of patriotic feeling, sentimentality and togetherness to convince us that we have exercised some civic virtue. But the vacation time spent with family and friends will mostly serve to remind us that we are exhausted.
Exhaustion is the national refrain. When everyone from a basketball coach to a Cabinet member retires from view, we are told how exhausted each is and discover a public echo of our own private feeling.
One of the most recent -- and certainly among the most speculated about -- confessions of this kind came from Hillary Clinton, who told the New York Times, “I would like to see whether I can get untired.” I have no doubt that Clinton -- fabled for her work ethic and ambition to enact change -- is tired. How could she not be? But Clinton’s claim that she craves the “ordinary” after two decades of the extraordinary emphasizes something beyond the energy required to live a public life today.
The routines of public figures at the loftiest ranks are, in no uncertain terms, unordinary: They are moved from one event to the next by schedulers, aides and personal security detachments. They travel by cavalcade and personal plane, for if they traveled like the rest of us, they would, like the rest of us, never get anywhere on time. Yet they always appear to be running late and to have no time. At appropriate moments someone whispers in their ear that the car is waiting or knocks on the door to inform them the meeting must end.
This is simply the insulation that comes with the job. But what are we saving our public figures for?
There was far less insulation in 1863, which opened with President Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. During the next several months, he oversaw two campaigns: Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign in the West and the fitful, largely ineffectual movements of first Ambrose Burnside and then Joseph Hooker in the East. By July 4, Vicksburg had fallen and Gettysburg had been won. In November, Lincoln would deliver the Gettysburg Address, which the historian Garry Wills has called “the words that remade America.”
The toll the presidency took on Lincoln, vividly measured in contemporary photographs, is such a commonplace I need not dwell on it here. What is worth examining is the proximity of the man not only to the extraordinary demands of the country’s highest public office but also to the defiantly ordinary stuff of life -- from the citizens lining the corridors of the White House, a phenomenon Steven Spielberg’s film documents quite effectively, to the correspondence streaming in.
Examining a week or even a day in Lincoln’s epistolary life, an activity that the Abraham Lincoln Association website hosted by the University of Michigan makes easy, reveals how little of the ordinary the president seems to have been spared during this momentous period. Lincoln operated always on many different levels simultaneously, managing panoramic strategic initiatives even as he addressed the everyday concerns of private citizens.
Over the course of his days, he endorsed job applicants for even minor political offices; arranged for the mustering out of drummer boys; reviewed the petitions of paymasters accused of theft; pardoned soldiers for various offenses; facilitated a mother’s search for her wounded son; recommended candidates for admission to West Point; addressed a Mrs. Green’s complaint that her husband had not been promoted in timely fashion; communicated to his wife the death of Tad’s pet goat; and on a daily basis scolded, cajoled, inspired and nursed the wounded egos of fractious, jealous generals on whom his hopes depended.
“I have no more time for Mr. Capen,” Lincoln wrote on April 26, 1863, after being importuned once too often by a quack meteorologist whose forecast for sun had just been belied by 10 hours of rain. It took a great deal, however, to wear down Lincoln’s patience. He had secretaries, of course, but the personal energy he devoted to individual requests, petitions, and complaints would be considered beneath the importance of any modern president, who could not afford such investment.
When we think of Lincoln’s political vision and rhetorical capacity, perhaps we imagine that he managed it despite all the distractions. Yet what if it was his very proximity to the mundane that made those triumphs of intellect possible? Policy makers and political visionaries rarely have such constant exposure to the motivations of real people, such intimacy with their pettiness as well as their extraordinary capacity for endurance.
To see the juxtaposition of large and small in Lincoln’s daily life is to consider whether an understanding of the momentous, global and strategic is truly possible without the shaping force of the quotidian. Perhaps we have moved beyond the point where the people chosen to solve our problems can dwell in the real. Yet when we consider that being steeped in the real can yield a Gettysburg Address, this year on the Fourth of July we might well wonder what we have lost.
(Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of “Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.”)
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