Three American presidents have achieved greatness. Each guided our country though perilous times and by their wisdom and force of personality they helped to shape the future. The three are Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.George Washington was foremost among the Founding Fathers. Not only did he lead the armed forces which wrest independence for the colonies from Great Britain, but as President he guided the newly formed nation through its first eight formative years.
Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency during the worst crisis of the nineteenth century, our Civil War. He was faced with the twin issues of slavery and preserving the union, tensions that were tearing up the social fabric of the nation.
With the twentieth century the United States had become a world power. By the time that Franklin Roosevelt became President, America was coping with a terrible financial Depression while watching Asia and Europe coming aflame with the Second World War. FDR was the optimistic leader who coped with the Depression and assured that the United States would be victorious in the World War.
Because each of these met separate challenges of their times, it would be only an intellectual exercise to claim that any one of these were greater than the others. But my respect for any one of them grows when I read a solid biography. My respect for Abraham Lincoln was enhanced when I completed a biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."
The "rivals" were four major candidates who were Lincoln's adversaries for nomination for President by the Republican Party in 1860. Lincoln won the nomination and presidency. He then brought his rivals into his cabinet when he assumed office.
Kearns' biography traces the parallel lives of Lincoln and the men who became his key allies in the cabinet: William H. Seward, Secretary of State; Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury; Edward Bates, Attorney General; and Edwin M. Stanton, who became Secretary of War. All of them had been successful statesmen who had invested their egos and political capital in pursuit of the presidency.
Lincoln was able to channel their considerable talents and energy into a functional team at a time of great crisis.
Lincoln's relationships with the strong-minded individuals in the cabinet was sometimes strained, especially with Salmon P. Chase, who schemed to run against Lincoln in the election of 1864. Lincoln finessed Chase into resigning, but showed no animosity toward Chase as he named him to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The association between Lincoln and Secretary of State Sumner was particularly strong. They became good friends while sharing the traumas of war and the forging of relationships with foreign powers during the hostilities at home.
Unfortunately, Lincoln and Sumner shared more, as they were the targets of an assassination plot. The assault upon Lincoln was successful, and Sumner received wounds which nearly took his life. As Lincoln lay dying, Secretary of War Stanton is quoted as saying, "Now he belongs to the Ages."
There is some controversy as others in the room heard Stanton say, "Now he belongs to the Angels." Both are appropriate, as he has achieved immortality and a place among the better angels.
The book is well-researched, and showed insights into the personalities and events of the times that help us to understand the difficulties of the period, now almost 150 years ago.
The primary insight is into the character and personal attributes of Abraham Lincoln. His patience, good will, and vaunted sense of humor helped to sustain the nation in its darkest hour.
The greater tragedy is that the loss of his life snuffed out a president who wanted there to be "malice toward none." Without Lincoln's moderating influence there was malice toward the Confederates states during the Reconstruction Period which followed the war and the South responded with a system of segregation by race that took at least 100 years to remedy.
President Lincoln had only a sketchy formal education. Yet his own program of personal education led him to become one of the great wordsmiths among the presidents. His best known speech at the dedication of the battlefield at Gettysburg is among the classics of American literature. He ended with the thought that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. One hundred fifty years have gone by. We have government of people, and by people, but there is a real question if our leaders govern for the people.
Dr. Robert Leight is a member of the Quakertown Community School District Board of School Directors, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.