October 3, 2020


Lincoln and Presidential Character : Abraham Lincoln learned much of what made him a great president -- honesty, sincerity, toughness, and humility -- from his early reading and from studying the lives of Washington and Franklin. (David S. Reynolds, October 2020, American Heritage)

What makes a President great? How do we judge the character of candidates for high office? Those questions have been transcendent for American voters since the earliest days of our Republic. And since most people believe that Lincoln was our greatest President, it's worth examining what it was that made him great. 

Lincoln gained many of these traits through reading. Today, psychologists such as Geoff Kaufman at Dartmouth College point out that when we read about and identify with characters in fiction, we tend to subconsciously adopt their behavior. Lincoln proves that the same is true of nonfiction as well - his early reading exposed him to the role models of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. And he absorbed core values from the Bible and Aesop's Fables, and learned from reading James Riley that America had the finest political system in the world, but it was also stained by the worst form of oppression. 

Lincoln's schooling experience was typical for a boy growing up on the Kentucky-Indiana frontier. His total time in school, he reported, was less than one year. Abe attended five schools for short terms, two in Kentucky before he turned seven and three in Indiana at the ages of eleven, thirteen, and seventeen.

Schools on the frontier at the time were often windowless and dirt-floored, single-room log structures. A school term customarily lasted two or three months and was scheduled not to conflict with the planting and harvesting seasons, when children were needed for farm work. 

However, in nineteenth-century America a sound education could be found outside the classroom as shown by the experiences of Frederick Douglass, who had no formal schooling yet became one of the century's most eloquent communicators, or Walt Whitman, the great poet who left school at eleven. This was the case with Lincoln. He absorbed the cultural energies of the frontier, and read books that helped shape his character. He was an attentive reader, and little was lost on him. He often repeated passages aloud and wrote them down whenever he could. 

When we survey these eclectic influences -- to which can be added newspapers, which he began reading in Indiana in the 1820s -- we see his mind was fed early on by all kinds of sources, high and low, sacred and secular.  Absorbing the new religious style of preachers at the same time as crude frontier humor, he was integrating culture in an extraordinarily wide-ranging manner.

...but that he was also raised by a Klansman.

Posted by at October 3, 2020 7:06 AM