Monday, February 17, 2020

Quote of the Day (William Lee Miller, on Lincoln’s ‘Growth’ in Office)

“That Lincoln ’grew’ is a cliché, and is vague, and—if the metaphor is taken literally—is misleading. Plants and animals and human beings grow without effort or thought; suddenly in one's middle teens one shoots up to six foot four….But Lincoln’s important changes did not unfold through the working-out of a pattern of nature; they came by his own intent, through thinking, and might otherwise not have happened. Although it is another cliché to say that men ‘grow’ in the presidency, James Buchanan did not ‘grow’: Andrew Johnson did not ‘grow.’

“This Lincoln was a learner. He was in particular a moral learner. If the term ‘self-improvement’ did not now have such banal associations, we might use that term for Lincoln's own serious lifetime undertaking.

“He learned what it took for his ambition to serve his virtue: it took subordination to a worthy end, and self-restraining generosity in seeking it.”— American religious scholar, journalist, and historian William Lee Miller (1926-2012), Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (2002)

“Growth”—or, to use Miller’s concept, moral learning—should figure not only into how historians rank Presidents but also how voters should evaluate candidates—including incumbents vying to continue to be the occupant of the most powerful office on earth. It involves not merely changing a position but explaining when and how one came to do so. 

Books (particularly Shakespeare’s plays) formed only one part in the moral evolution of Abraham Lincoln. Also important were encounters, large and small, that this greatest American example of the “self-made man” had with individuals who made him reflect, reevaluate and sharpen his own beliefs in practice.

I had known about Frederick Douglass, who observed years later that he had “never [been] more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln.” 

But it was not until I read Miller that I heard about how, three decades before he met the great abolitionist orator and editor, a 22-year-old Lincoln had also been impressed by the aspirations of a down-and-out Haitian, William de Fleurville. The young man urged his friends to give their business to “Billy the Barber,” and, when the up-and-coming lawyer-politico moved to Springfield, he continued to get his hair cut by the now-thriving immigrant—and continued to maintain a friendly correspondence with him while in the White House.

On the other hand, flatboat voyages Lincoln made to New Orleans in 1828 and 1831 left him with a bone-deep abhorrence of slavery, the institution that would have denied the right to self-improvement exercised by Billy the Barber and Douglass. Slavery, he said during his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, was “founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it in his love of justice.” 

That love of justice was the “self-restraining generosity” hailed by Miller. Americans would be well-advised to consider—especially in this Presidential election—which candidate best embodies this principle. One thing is for certain, though: a candidate utterly devoid of it risks nothing less than the survival of the republic that Lincoln worked so tirelessly to save.

(There were no painters ready to create Lincoln’s portrait when he was coming to manhood, let alone photographers. So I am supplying the best visual substitute I can think of for “The Railsplitter’s” homely, raw-boned, but earnest youthful image—the accompanying still of Henry Fonda in the 1939 John Ford classic, Young Mr. Lincoln.)

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