In these times of extreme rhetoric and deep political divisions, consider the words of President Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrate February 12: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
Abraham Lincoln’s contemporaries attacked him in editorials, speeches, journals, diaries, and private letters. Even without Twitter and social media, they criticized his upbringing, his lack of formal education, and even his appearance.
Harper’s Weekly told readers: “He is not a brilliant orator; he is not a great leader.” An Ohio Congressman agreed: Lincoln “is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity . . . .”
A New Yorker wrote Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.” After a Cabinet meeting, Lincoln’s own Attorney General wrote in his diary: “I greatly fear he has not the power to command.”
Union commanding general George McClellan called him “a coward,” “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla.” McClellan once slighted Lincoln who was waiting in the general’s house: McClellan ignored the President and went to bed, leaving him in the parlor.
Lincoln shouldered the blame as McClellan’s and other generals’ failures mounted and Republicans turned on him. Michigan Republican Senator Zachariah Chandler said he was “timid, vacillating and inefficient.” Maine Republican William Fessenden called Lincoln “weak as water.”
Abolitionist Wendell Phillips lamented: “Abraham Lincoln sits today a more unlimited despot than the world knows this side of China.” Fellow abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton called him “Dishonest Abe” and opposed his renomination.
Republican Senator Charles Sumner also opposed the President’s renomination: “There is a strong feeling among those who have seen Mr. Lincoln, in the way of business, that he lacks practical talent for his important place.”
Some Northern newspapers actually called for Lincoln’s assassination. In the days after the assassination, William Lloyd Garrison Jr. called his murder “providential.”
Nonetheless, Lincoln was gracious in dealing with his critics: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” He would add: “Let us speak no more of these things.” He also met with detractors, asking: “Why does he not come and have a talk with me?”
Meetings were important to Lincoln. No matter how busy he was, he found time to meet, often using stories to make points: “They say I tell a great many stories. I reckon I do; but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than in any other way.”
While contemporary criticisms of Lincoln have long been forgotten, his words haven’t, like the conclusion of his Gettysburg Address: “. . . government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Likewise, his second Inaugural Address (with future assassin John Wilkes Booth in attendance): “With malice toward none; 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.”
Despite the attacks on him, Abraham Lincoln always remained focused on the good of the county: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Hopefully, we can do the same in the face of our critics.