Missing Lincoln, missing America

A little more than a week ago I was listening to the final chapters of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, as I ran in the darkness of a Buffalo early morning, and found myself in tears, as I crossed Lincoln Parkway and heard this passage below.

Last week, with Congressman Higgins, Erie County Legislature Majority Leader April Baskins, Reverend George Nicholas of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, Richard Lipsitz, the President of the local AFL-CIO, and Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, we reflected on addressing intolerance, hatred, and incivility, and Lincoln’s words and life arose in the conversation numerous times.

We need the spirit of our most brilliant ancestors to inspire us to new actions, greater humility, broader understanding, and a more effective dedication to equality for all.

Here are the words that both inspired me and brought me to tears as I jogged in the pre-dawn darkness of autumn in Buffalo:

“In 1908, in a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the age, was the guest of a tribal chief ‘living far away from civilized life in the mountains’. Gathering his family and neighbors, the chief asked Tolstoy to tell stories about the famous men of history. Tolstoy told how he entertained the eager crowd for hours with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon. When he was winding to a close, the chief stood and said, ‘But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock....His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.’

“‘I looked at them,’ Tolstoy recalled, ‘and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that these rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.’ He told them everything he knew about Lincoln’s ‘home life and youth...his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.’ When he finished they were so grateful for the story that they presented him with ‘a wonderful Arabian horse.’ The next morning, as Tolstoy prepared to leave, they asked if he could possibly acquire for them a picture of Lincoln. Thinking that he might find one at a friend’s house in the neighboring town, Tolstoy asked one of the riders to accompany him. ‘I was successful in getting a large photograph from my friend,’ recalled Tolstoy. As he handed it to the rider, he noted that the man’s hand trembled as he took it. ‘He gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer, his eyes filled with tears.’

“Tolstoy went on to observe, ‘This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now, why was Lincoln so great that he over-shadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.

“‘Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country - bigger than all the Presidents together.

“‘We are still too near to his greatness,’ Tolstoy concluded, ‘but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.’

Doris Kearns Goodwin continues:

“His conviction that we are one nation, indivisible, ‘conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ led to the rebirth of a union free of slavery. And he expressed this conviction in a language of enduring clarity and beauty, exhibiting a literary genius to match his political genius.

“With his death, Abraham Lincoln had come to seem the embodiment of his own words - ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all’ - voiced in his second inaugural to lay out the visionary pathway to a reconstructed union. The deathless name he sought from the start had grown far beyond Sangamon County and Illinois, reached across the truly United States, until his legacy, as Stanton had surmised at the moment of his death, belonged not only to America but to the ages - to be revered and sung throughout all time.”

[Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, pages 747-749