Getting to Know Lincoln by Littles

Peter W. Schramm

February 1, 2009

My education in American things was delayed while I was an undergraduate student at California State University in the 1960s. I wanted to study history, especially American history, until I took my first American history class. The professor was young and hip and cool and also a man of the left. He announced one day in class that at our next meeting we would be talking about Abraham Lincoln and it would likely be a short conversation because all we really needed to know about Lincoln was that he was a racist and a hypocrite.

This surprised me, but not because I knew much about Lincoln. After all, I was a graduate of Hollywood High School. And yet, could it be that this was all there was to Lincoln? Still, told he was not worth studying, I re-directed my education to the study of non-American history. I spent many years studying about Louis XIV, Attila the Hun, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and other such tyrants, certainly no hypocrites. This was interesting, even amusing, but in the end an unsatisfying diversion.

Over time—as I began to understand what my Hungarian parents always understood about America’s purpose—I crossed Lincoln’s path again, and I started to pay attention. I noticed his words first. There was something in themthat pulled on me. Perhaps the short, old words, the monosyllabic rhythm is what got to me. It’s not that my eyes hadn’t seen those particular words before; rather, I noticed that Lincoln’s way of combining the words surprised me. His phrases are fresh and new. I read that he was a stubborn reader and read aloud often, so I started reading him aloud, and this was even better.

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.

And then again:

Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

And yet again:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

And then I started paying attention to what he did. I learned that, outraged by the 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he re-entered politics. He argued forcefully that the Founders meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, knew slavery to be amoral wrong, and had placed it on the course of ultimate extinction. Lincoln said that people had no right to vote for a wrong. I began to understand something about the relationship between political principle and practice.

I read about his remarkable fortitude. With the war came the horror and the blood and the sacrifice. Then there were incompetent generals, and boys deserting their posts to see their mothers. And he dealt with it all, even as he was doubted by those closest to him. As president he was obligated to save the Union and win the war. So that is what he did.

Reading about what he did, I formed an idea of his constant, open character. At one moment he could tell very funny stories; at another he would read Shakespeare’s tragedies to friends as they wept. He would talk about God’s inscrutable purposes with preachers, as they sensed he knew the Bible better than they did. He invited black Americans into the White House and called them Mister even before deciding, because of military necessity, to abolish slavery. And after emancipation he pushed for the Constitution to be amended, to make sure the Supreme Court wouldn’t be confused.

Eventually I paid attention to how his words made sense of what he did. They showed his hopeful purpose, most publicly at Gettysburg and in his Second Inaugural, where he tried to understand the war and the new birth of freedom, putting immortal words on timely deeds. Although he fought the war with might, he made peace without malice, wanting to bind up the nation’s wounds and bring the rebels back into the Union that he had found worth saving, back as friends and fellow citizens.

Abraham Lincoln did not have much of an education, as that is ordinarily understood. He was once asked how he got what education he did have. He answered, by littles. That is more or less how I got my education about Mr. Lincoln, helped out by some very good people—teachers, friends, and students—some of whom you can read in these pages. And those littles have added up to more than knowledge—to a kind of friendship—with this American in whose heart knowledge and charity left no room for malice. This man who strove to understand, and to teach, who said so hard is it, to have a thing understood as it really is, even by littles.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.