Don’t let anyone tell us that we are in the most contentious time in American political history. Grab a few books off the shelf recounting the campaigns of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams (the Adams family has a legacy here), or of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, and we are immediately disabused of that notion. Supporters of Jefferson spread rumors that John Adams planned on a marriage between his son and the daughter of the king of England, and John Quincy Adams supporters claimed that Andrew Jackson’s mother was a prostitute who made love to a “mulatto,” giving birth to the presidential candidate.
Our most heralded president, Abraham Lincoln, was repeatedly pilloried for his appearance, his ancestry, his decisiveness, his lack of decisiveness, his opposition to slavery, his toleration for slavery… in fact, there is hardly a political position or a character flaw that were not attributed to him vociferously by his opponents at one time or another. And yet, one of the most remarkable traits of our 16th American president was that he was relatively unaffected by the maelstrom of invective that was endemic to both his campaigns and to his terms in office.
Lincoln knew himself, listened to others, and plodded ahead in hope and wisdom towards justice, prosperity, and peace. He was incredibly patient. He was willing to be misunderstood. He was available and empathetic. Throughout the most horrible war in our history he never stopped visiting wounded soldiers in the infirmary and writing to widows and forlorn mothers. He always listened. He was willing to change his mind. He was comfortable being hated and misrepresented, as long as he was properly oriented by the inner compass of his character. He was a man who did what he could. He is a man we can emulate, and one whose traits we can look for and hope for in our current and future presidential candidates. Most of all, we can do far worse to use old Abe as one of our guides to life.