Ambitious Abe

IT'S fashionable for Americans to make their most-admired presidents into historical monuments -- that is, marble-like, with none of the flaws evident. George Washington is one such historical monument, as is Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday anniversary is observed today. Lincoln had his share of shortcomings. In spite of the popular story suggesting that Lincoln was wedded to books at an early age, the evidence indicates that, as an adult, he rarely read books in their entirety. he was, however, an avid newspaper reader, which provided him with a capsulized knowledge of the events of his day.

As a lawyer, Lincoln was scarcely methodical in his work. He stuffed all sorts of important and not-so-important papers in his stovepipe hat -- the first round file -- and his desk was so untidy as to give root on one occasion to some seeds that made their way through a paper container.

Most of the work in preparing briefs was done by Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, who noted that his office mate ``wrote few papers -- less perhaps than any other man at the bar.'' Herndon also observed that as a trial lawyer Lincoln ``made no preparation in advance but trusted to the hour for its inspiration and to Providence for his supplies.''

Then there was the fact that Mr. Lincoln lacked social polish. He told good and bad jokes, and his reaction to both was crude. ``His laugh was striking,'' according to one contemporary. ``Such awkward gestures belonged to no other man. They attracted universal attention, from the old sedate down to the schoolboy.''

Lincoln was ``inordinately ambitious,'' in the words of his law partner. He courted the press with a strategy that was in advance of its time. He took special care to make friends of the wealthy, and his marriage to socialite Mary Todd should be viewed, at least in part, in this context -- even though Lincoln in tasteless fashion stood her up on the intended day of their marriage in 1841. The knot was actually tied nearly two years later.

Yet as an ambitious man, Lincoln recognized full well that his positions on the key issues of his day had to be moderate. And in the mid-19th-century's emotional political arena, moderation seemed the better part of wisdom. Of course, Lincoln's rhetoric, like that of modern politicians, was in advance of his actual position: ``A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all the one thing or the other.''

Lincoln's reasonable political posture was best exemplified in the White House. The first shot fired at Fort Sumter that began the Civil War, on Lincoln's order, would not be fired by the Union. Far from being an abolitionist, Lincoln moved slowly toward the Emancipation Proclamation, which embodied military and diplomatic objectives.

His reconstruction policy for the defeated Confederate states was practical, based upon the assumption that a restored Union was more important than the pursuit of punitive measures. Much to the consternation of ideo- logues, Lincoln often said, ``My policy is to have no policy.''

Lincoln, however, did have one consistent policy: to do everything possible to save the American experiment in democracy, an objective expressed so eloquently in his brief second inaugural address.

``With malice toward none,'' he concluded, ``with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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