February 12, 1809, 202 years ago, lost in the wild frontier of Kentucky in a log cabin placed at the side of a creek called Nolan, outside the settlement of Hogdenville, a miracle of history occurred. An illiterate tenant farmer named Thomas Lincoln and his wife Nancy Hanks brought into the world an epic soul. From such humble roots, one of the great thinkers and unquestionably one of the world’s most gifted leaders came into being to a nearly untouched natural world. He was Abraham Lincoln, and in his relatively brief life of 56 years shook the very foundations of his nation and changed it forever.
It is the ultimate test of nature versus nurture when one examines the life production of Abraham Lincoln. He certainly had no significant identifiable schooling, and his upbringing provided nearly no stimulants for learning beyond the skills needed to survive in a very rough and occasionally brutal wilderness. His step-mother Sarah Johnson, coming into the family after the untimely death of Lincoln’s mother at age 11, found a melancholic and wild boy, but inured in him an uncommon devotion due to her unstinting love for him. Though illiterate herself, she saw in him something nobody else saw, and pushed him to learn to read and write. In the Indiana wilderness the family moved to, Lincoln proved a voracious self taught student in writing skills, grammar, and the few books available to him. The entire scope of his training was frankly his will to learn, and the interpretations of his learning all his own. From wilderness wild cat to eventual local learned man, the philosophic world view devised by Lincoln was entirely unique and his own creation.
David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln biography is in my mind the most passionately human biography of Lincoln and a must read for any who wishes to understand Lincoln the man who became Lincoln the colossal historical figure. The specific chapters reflecting the years of Lincoln as a young circuit lawyer in Illinois are essentially perfectly written. Lincoln was a mental sponge, forgetting no personal interaction, no lesson to be learned, no overarching theme to the simplest disputes and events. He built on his friendships, his experiences, and his battles to develop an uncommon awareness of the unique qualities of the American Experience and the vital role of the common man in framing it. With no apparent template for a guide, he created a strong and complex capacity to understand, and importantly, elucidate that understanding to others, in clear and precise language. It was a skill that was natural, his own, and absolutely, genius.
Lincoln wrote and spoke on so many topics of importance to his time that an entire career studying the many moments of brilliance have consumed academicians since his life ended. The more amazing reality is how often he spoke in a way that evoked universal themes that crossed multiple generations that speak to us today. The speeches written by Lincoln resonate for our time; the House Divided speech, the Lincoln Douglas debates, the first and second Inaugurals, and the jewel in the crown, the Gettysburg Address. He was additionally at his greatest in the simple letter responses to friends, and the letters of consolation to the war’s bereaved, showing each his ability to understand their prism of understanding, their own special role and their personal sorrow. This President in saintly fashion absorbed every arrow, every pain, every loss, every need as his own, and it showed stunningly in his rapid aging in photos over the five year period of the Civil War. The mind , though, did not age, and his brilliance revealed in the final weeks of his life showed eternal strength of character and a bottomless desire to take on monstrous social complexities and provide the leadership to solve them.
Everyone’s favorite Lincoln is their special Lincoln – Lincoln the Western Railsplitter, Lincoln the Writer, Lincoln the Philosopher, Lincoln the War Leader, Lincoln the Speech Maker. Any one of these Lincoln’s would be worthy of a birthday treatise. Lincoln the Miracle Man is my favorite today – the perfect Product from nothing, out of nothing, through the strength of his own will and the freedom offered by his society to have an equal chance as any other, to excel, and flourish at a miracle level, to the benefit of us all. He is the man, who at his First Inaugural, looking into the dark chasm of the impending cataclysm of the Civil War, forgave us our sinful stubbornness and projected the way to our eventual salvation by relying on our inherent goodness and the saving grace of our humanity:
” I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies….The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and headstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”