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ISBN ### Where is our Lincoln?

ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-7075-5

"He had packed his own trunk, tied it with a rope, and inscribed it simply: 'A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.' Neither the luxurious presidential car, decorated with dark furniture, crimson curtains, and a rich tapestry carpet, nor the colorful flags and streamers swaying from its paneled exterior could lift the solemn mood of the president-elect. Lincoln understood that his country faced a perilous situation, perhaps the most perilous in its history. That same morning, Jefferson Davis was beginning a journey of his own. To the cheers of thousands [...] he would be inaugurated president of the new Confederacy."

Right around the fourth grade bright-eyed children across this vast nation are introduced to the mythical legend of The Great Emancipator. Many people feel, to this very day, that Abraham Lincoln is the greatest president our country has ever had. After finishing the 800 page biography "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin I agree with that contention. However, I agree only by adding one specific caveat. I agree for reasons we are not taught in social studies hour sandwiched between field trip permission slips and four square tournaments at recess.

I would never discount the monumental significance of the Emancipation Proclamation. What I will discount is the common notion that Lincoln was a hardcore abolitionist who fought tooth and nail to abolish slavery against all odds (see also: the fourth grade history lesson in which we made top hats out of old newspapers). With about 400 pages of the book dedicated to the complex, intricate, historically detailed discussion of the ins and outs of the slavery debate as it stood in 1860 (give and take 5+ years on either end), I can safely say that I both understand and respect the many shades of gray. Lincoln's stand was to contain slavery where it existed at the time of his election and forbid it from expanding to the western territories. He did not seek, at the time, to un-do the slavery that already existed in the south. He was a brilliant compromiser, but not an avid abolitionist. Saving the union was, to him, a more important calling than abolishing slavery. For that matter, he had the Emancipation Proclamation composed and tucked in his pocket, as it were, waiting for just the right moment to announce his plans to his delicate nation. With that mind, I feel Lincoln is a political genius not simply because he is the Great Emancipator, but rather because of the way in which he held the country together and re-created the United States.

Kearns Goodwin's book is called "Team of Rivals" to reference the way Lincoln formed his presidential cabinet. His primary contenders for the Republican nomination in the 1860 election - William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates - were all given highly influential positions within the administration, meeting with Lincoln daily, advising him at every turn, and adding much drama to the already dramatic political scene of a country at war with itself. What interested me most and endeared Lincoln to me was his leadership style. Anyone and everyone who met with him left the interaction feeling as though they were heard, their opinion was validated, and they were the most important person in the room. That takes incredible skill to maneuver friends and enemies in that way. To convince others to support your opinion and they leave the conversation feeling as though it was their idea all along. I say "maneuver" and not "manipulate" because it's not a negative and vindictive process, it's a brilliant and astoundingly difficult process. Lincoln was, above all else, a pitch perfect interpersonal communicator.

It's obviously not only Lincoln's interpersonal, either one-on-one or small cabinet meeting, conversations that saved the nation. Anyone who has read his speeches can attest to the power of his public words. Another stand-out lesson I gleaned from this massive tome is Lincoln's ability to speak to the people, the dirty, average, uneducated, mass of citizens that was (is) the heart of America. Coming from a poor prairie existence himself, he never lost sight of that. He was a powerful storyteller, able to comprehend intricately difficult concepts, synthesize them, flip them around and speak in accessible, memorable language. Maybe it's an American phenomenon, maybe it's just the political junkie in me, but I can literally feel his words rush through my body as though they are hiding in my veins themselves:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. [...] The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Can you feel that? "...a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." It was unflappable dedication to this cause that motivated Lincoln. It is his belief in this cause that makes him, to me, the greatest leader we've known. A leader who was willing to prioritize impossibly difficult priorities. Speaking to a newspaper reporter at the height of the Civil War he said, "I fear you do not fully comprehend the danger of abridging the liberties of the people. Nothing but the very sternest necessity can ever justify it. A government had better go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardize in any degree, the common rights of its citizens." (Take your cue, Patriot Act). Lincoln is not a racist, he was dedicated to a free America and understood the necessity of putting the preservation of the Union first. It is that far-sighted leadership that makes a humble, uneducated man from rural Illinois...Abraham Lincoln.

In honor of the 2008 election

Certain unalienable rights