I was visiting family last week and stumbled on a book in my father's library, Lincoln's Virtues, by William Lee Miller. I teach a course on Lincoln regularly, including this semester, so old Abe has been in my thoughts. I devoured this book. It is particularly good on Lincoln's early years. This passage is worth quoting at length.
In a society of hunters, Lincoln did not hunt; where many males shot rifles, Lincoln did not shoot; among fisherman, Lincoln did not fish; among many who were cruel to animals, Lincoln was kind; surrounded by farmers, Lincoln fled from farming; with a father who was a carpenter, Lincoln did not take up carpentry; in a frontier village preoccupied with physical tasks, Lincoln avoided manual labor; in a world in which men smoked and chewed, Lincoln never used tabacco; in a rough, profane world, Lincoln did not swear; in a social world in which fighting was a regular male activity, Lincoln became a peacemaker; in a hard drinking society, Lincoln did not drink; when a temperance movement condemned all drinking, Lincoln the non-drinker did not join it; in an environment soaked with hostility to Indians, Lincoln resisted it; in a time and place in which the great mass of common men in the West supported Andrew Jackson, Lincoln supported Henry Clay; surrounded by Democrats, Lincoln became a Whig; in a political party with a strong nativist undercurrent, Lincoln rejected that prejudice; in a southern-flavored setting soft on slavery, Lincoln always opposed it; in a white world with strong racial antipathies, Lincoln was generous to blacks; in an environment indifferent to education, Lincoln cared about it intensely; in a family active in a church, young Lincoln abstained; when evangelical Christianity permeated the western frontier, Lincoln raised questions--and gave different answers than his neighbors.
And of course we know Lincoln's love of books and vast powers of concentration. He steeped himself in the Bible, Shakespeare, Euclid. He read Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Weem's Life of Washington. A book called William Scott's Lessons in Elocution exposed him in short bits to Hume, Gibbon, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Dryden, Milton,and others. And of course to teach himself to become a lawyer, he read and studied Blackstone. And glancing at speeches like his Peoria address (on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise) in 1854 and the Cooper Union address in 1860, Lincoln's study of the primary documents of the founding era was vast and deep.
Given all of this (Miller's passage comes in a section of the book called "Lincoln's Great Rejections"), one might expect--indeed, it would seem to follow--that Lincoln would be a kind of recluse, out of step with his people and his times, estranged in a sense from his fellows. For sure, Lincoln the book worm did retreat at times to engage in study and did apparently have bouts with melancholy. But Lincoln was also very much a social creature who enjoyed life with friends and neighbors. He told stories. He told jokes. He read to others. He was very well liked. A famous story has him becoming fast friends with a Jack Armstrong after pounding him in a wrestling match. He was an astute political operator and a party man through and through (more on this in another post). Later in life, people who had once held him in utter contempt, like Edwin Stanton, Lincoln would win over--decisively and profoundly. Despite his "great rejections," Lincoln seems to have had vast reserves sympathy for all that surrounded him. I don't mean sympathy in the sense it's often used today--akin to pity--but rather in Adam Smith's sense. The ability to step into the shoes of another, to see things from their perspective. As Lincoln would say about the southern people on more than one occasion, "They are just what we would be in their situation." He had a healthy respect for public opinion--as it was, and not as he wished it to be ("A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, can not be safely disregarded."). He believed the opinions and sentiments of his fellows to be the foundation of self government. "He who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed." And of course he thought a great deal about just how to go about moulding that sentiment: "If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend."
Perhaps it is from Lincoln the outsider, Lincoln of the "great rejections," that we get the principled core--the Lincoln who won't give an inch on the principles of the Declaration, on slavery extension, on the injustice of secession. But perhaps it is the Lincoln of sympathy, of friendship, from whom we get the modesty and majesty of the Second Inaugural.