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At noon on March 4, 1861, the moral situation of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was abruptly transformed. That morning, arising in the Willard Hotel at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington, he had been a private citizen, making choices of right and wrong, better and worse, good and evil, as human beings do, in his own right, for himself, by his own lights, as an individual moral agent. That afternoon, standing on the steps of the East Portico of the Capitol, before thirty thousand of his fellow citizens, he became an oath-bound head of state.
Although he had, in the previous two years, rather rapidly ascended from provincial obscurity to a certain national notice, and although he had in the morning the pendulant importance of a president-elect, he was as yet, so far as the law was concerned, one citizen alongside other citizens. At noon on that day he was transformed by the constitutional alchemy into something else–the “executive” of the federal government of the United States, the position that the framers in Philadelphia seventy-four years before had decided to call by the word “president.” There immediately settled upon his elongated frame an awesome new battery of powers and an immense new layer of responsibility, obligating, constraining, and empowering him.
In that moment he was lifted to a dizzying new eminence. Before many days had passed the sometime backwoods rail-splitter would find himself sending greetings to his “great and good friend” Her Majesty Doña Isabel II, Queen of Spain; and to his “great and good friend” Her Majesty Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of England and Ireland; and to his “great and good friend” His Royal Majesty Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, none of whom, of course, he had ever met.
Perhaps you had not thought of Abraham Lincoln of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana, addressing as his great and good friend “His Imperial Majesty Napoleon III, Emperor of the French,” or “His Majesty Alexander II, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias,” or “His Majesty Leopold, King of the Belgians.” But he did. In the years to come there would be many such messages. They would be drafted, to be sure, in the State Department with Secretary of State Seward’s name below that of the president, and they would be composed in diplomatic formulae of the utmost insincerity, compared to which U.S. senators calling each other “distinguished” is a beacon of truthfulness. But they would be signed by “your good friend” Abraham Lincoln, and sent to royal highnesses and imperial majesties and grand dukes and princes and queens and kings and an occasional president and at least one tycoon and one viceroy. The messages would express the president’s alleged delight with the marriage of a royal niece or the safe delivery of a prince, his supposedly deep sympathy at the melancholy tidings of the decease of a late majesty or the passing of a well-beloved royal cousin, his putative best wishes that a reign might be happy and prosperous. Abraham Lincoln was now a member of this exclusive worldwide circle; he had become, in the pompous formality of international diplomacy, the quite unlikely equal and “friend” of these august personages around the world because, like them, he was now a head of state.
One can imagine that the lofty figures in high politics in Europe and around the world would find this new American leader a puzzle. He had no family heritage, no education, no languages, no exposure to the great world outside his own country, and he did not know that he should not wear black gloves to the opera. He was not accustomed to ordering people about. He did not insist on deference and did not receive much. He had never been in command of anything except a straggling company of volunteers in the state militia when he was twenty-three, who, it was reported, when he issued his first command told him to go to hell. His only service in national government had been one short and not impressive term as a congressman eleven years earlier. He had not been the “executive” of anything more than a two-man law firm; he had never in his life fired or dismissed anyone. One knew, because his party’s campaign had insisted upon it, that he had once upon a time split some rails, but rail splitting was scarcely a qualification for the role into which he entered in March 1861. He memorized and recited reams of poetry, mostly of a wistful-melancholy sort, which might make one wonder about his grip on practicality. He was reportedly a constant teller of humorous stories, and a man in whom humor was neither incidental nor decorative but integral, in a way that perhaps an emperor might believe should be left to the jester. Would he, on coming into ultimate responsibility, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, turn on his own inner Falstaff and say, I know thee not, old man? Or would he keep on telling jokes?
The characteristics that would lead his stepmother and his law partner and his friends to call him an unusually good, kind, conscientious man might have added to the world rulers’ bewilderment, had they known about them. His friends had given him the sobriquet Honest Abe, which might indicate a handicap at the highest level of politics, where a certain amount of patriotic lying is usually thought to be required. Those in Illinois who knew him before he became president said he was an unusually generous human being. He was reported to have more sympathy with the suffering of his fellow creatures than was really advantageous in a ruler– not only for lost cats, mired-down hogs, birds fallen out of the nest, but also for his fellow human beings. Stories were told of his springing to the defense of an old Indian who wandered into camp during the Black Hawk War and whom his company wanted to shoot. But a national leader must deal in the hundreds and the thousands and in the realities of the world as it is.
The great mentors of statecraft would say that there are many human beings who may be filled to the brim with personal moral graces but who in spite of that–actually they might say because of that–would not make great statesmen. Great command may require actions that would be morally objectionable if done in a personal capacity and foreclose many acts that are possible in a private capacity.
A great captain, a ruler, a prince (so the mentors of rulers would say) needs to command and instill respect. It would be written that “one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”
But this new American leader was showing a quite perverse disinclination to make himself feared. He did not mark down the names of those who had not supported him, or nurse grudges, or hold resentments, or retaliate against “enemies”–indeed, he tried not to have enemies, not to “plant thorns.” He had gracefully waited his turn in the competition with two others for the nomination for U.S. congressman from his district, and he had gone out of his way to tell his followers not to blame one rival for a whispering campaign against him. Although he had twice been defeated for the post he really wanted–senator from Illinois–and although those two contests left scars and resentments among his supporters, despite his deep disappointment, they did not leave scars and resentments in him; he would work amiably and productively with men who had blocked him. He had turned around and invited his four chief rivals for his party’s nomination to serve with him in his cabinet. The question might have been asked about him, Is he too lacking in the assertion of will and the ruthlessness that the exercise of great power is said to require to serve as a commander and a head of state in a giant war? Should not tenderheartedness be reserved to those who do not propose to exercise ultimate authority? Magnanimity, in Aristotle, is a virtue of the high-souled aristocrat, a noble condescending from his secure aboveness to exhibit his liberality; this man seemed to have presumed to exercise magnanimity without having an ounce of noble blood.
A great commander is not supposed to be amiably self-deprecating, continually using the word “humble” to describe himself and his background, and insisting that others could do the work of commanding as well as, or better than, he. (One was not sure that this man really believed that, but he said it more than once.) He did not seem unduly pious, and rumor had it that in his youth he had produced a critical paper about religion so scandalous that his friends burned it–but one might occasionally suspect there was a hint, in his deeds and his words, of the utterly impractical parts of that religion common to most of the new great and good friends on both sides of the Atlantic, the religion that was invoked in the closing lines of those formulaic international communications with his sudden new friends. This was the religion into which those royal nieces had been brought by sacred baptism, and by which those archduchesses had entered into holy matrimony, and in which the sadly departed majesties had been buried. But surely those ceremonial exercises were all the religion one needed as a practitioner of statecraft at the highest level, along with, of course, God’s support for one’s own side in any warfare. Other elements, about blessed meekness and blessed peacemaking and loving neighbors and other-cheek-turning and extra-mile-walking, and particularly about forgiveness and judging not that one be not judged–surely those should be confined to the monastery or at most to private life.
If his new “friends” or their advisers had read again the central chapters of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and if they had then learned more about this new American leader, they would surely have said: This man will never do.
From the Hardcover edition. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.