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Lincoln dignified the trade of politician like few others

Stephen Spielberg’s 2013 movie “Lincoln” is as much about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as it is about the man. This is a good thing as there’s nothing quite like conflict to reveal character, and Abraham Lincoln was a man of granite character. He was not a flatterer, neither was he moved by flattery. He was passionate, honest, plain-spoken, and while every inch a politician, he never stooped to pettiness, jealousy, or fault-finding. As Alistair Cooke said of him (and as the movie illustrates), “Lincoln had an extraordinary feel for the humanity of quite inhuman people and tolerated them long enough to get what he wanted from them—contractors, war profiteers, wheeler-dealers, the scum of the republic. He dignified the trade of politician like few men before or since.”

Lincoln wasn’t always this high-minded or tolerant. Earlier in life, he was quite the opposite. Growing up in Indiana, he possessed a disturbing fondness for making fun of people. He would write letters and poems ridiculing people he secretly despised and drop these letters on the country roads where they were sure to be found. After moving to Illinois and becoming a lawyer, he continued having fun at the expense of others, in letters published in newspapers. But he did it once too often. In 1842, he ridiculed a vain and pompous Irish politician named James Shields, in an anonymous letter published in the Springfield Journal. The town roared, while Shields seethed with indignation. He found out who wrote the letter, confronted Lincoln, took him by the lapels, and challenged him to a duel. Lincoln was shaken. The last thing he wanted was a duel, but there was no backing out. Springfield was a frontier town. His honor and his reputation as an attorney were at stake. Since he had long arms, he chose cavalry broad swords as the weapon of choice and took lessons from a West Point graduate. On the appointed day he rose early and met Shields on a sandy flat beside a river. At the last moment, however, their seconds intervened and put a stop to the duel. Lincoln got the message. Never again did he ridicule or criticize anyone. Like Benjamin Franklin, he made it his rule not to speak ill of any man.

During the Civil War, Lincoln had good reason to be critical of his generals—McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade—each of whom blundered tragically, and drove Lincoln to pacing the floor in despair. Half the nation savagely condemned these incompetent generals, yet Lincoln, frustrated though he was, held his tongue. His biggest test, perhaps, was the Battle of Gettysburg. After three days of fighting, on the night of July 4, Lee began to retreat southward while storm clouds deluged the countryside with rain. When Lee reached the Potomac with his defeated army, he found a swollen, impassable river in front of him, and a victorious Union army behind him. There was no place to go; Lee’s army was trapped. Lincoln, reading telegraph dispatches in Washington, saw what had happened. This was it. This was the moment the Union Army had been waiting for, the opportunity to capture Lee’s forces and end the war. Lincoln ordered General Meade to attack Lee immediately; not to call a war council, not to discuss options, not to sleep on it—attack. Lincoln telegraphed his orders and waited for the results.

What did Meade do? He waited. He called a war council, telegraphed all manner of excuses, and ultimately refused to attack Lee. A full week passed. Finally, the waters receded and Lee army’s escaped over the Potomac free to fight another day.

Lincoln was beside himself with anger. “What does this mean?” Lincoln cried to his son Robert. “Great God! What does this mean? We had them within our grasp, and had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours; yet nothing that I could say or do could make the army move. Under the circumstances, almost any general could have defeated Lee. If I had gone there, I could have whipped him myself.” Rather than board the next train to Gettysburg and give the general a piece of his mind, Lincoln allowed himself time to cool off. Then he sat down and wrote Meade a letter:

“My Dear General, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few—no more than two-thirds of the force you then had in command. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

What did Meade say when he read the letter? We’ll never know, because Lincoln never sent it. Perhaps he thought better of it. It was found among his papers after his death.

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