Two hundred and five years ago today Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln was our greatest president, for reasons too numerous to recount here. But there is one element of Lincoln’s character, I think, that’s worth focusing on–his ability, as the scholar Walter Berns put it, to fight the Civil War to the end without looking upon the Confederates as enemies.
In his biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”
In a particularly polarized political age, when the capacity to amplify personal attacks and demonize opponents through various outlets and social media is unprecedented, Lincoln’s example of purging hate and anger from heart and mind is particularly apposite. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight for great causes with great passion. It doesn’t mean avoiding criticisms of opponents or refusing to take on bad arguments. Lincoln himself was a master at this, using his logic, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to great effect.
But Lincoln was never a hater; and his capacity to extend grace to rather than to exact retribution against the South after the Civil War remains one of the remarkable achievements in American history.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said five weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
In the end, of course, the war came–and with it countless patriot graves. But Lincoln saved the American Republic and, after its most brutal war, he helped to bind up the wounds. He began to repair the bonds of affection. He has a special place in the American pantheon.