Meriden resident Paul Scollan wrote about Abraham Lincoln the other day (“A letter to Abe in the Beyond,” R-J 10/14/21). In his creative opinion piece, Scollan, a poet who is retired after a career as a social worker, was asking our 16th and greatest president for guidance: “Can you tell us from the other side of the veil what we should do to save our nation equally divided and misguided?”
It’s natural for Americans to think of Lincoln when the nation finds itself divided, and particularly when Americans are longing for great leadership. As a nation, we’ve been in that situation many times.
I can get a little teary when I read about Lincoln. I hope that long after we are forgotten he will be remembered, that he will be an essential part of the nation’s legacy, along with the First Amendment and the conviction that people have the right to speak their minds.
I can’t say I have expertise when it comes to Lincoln. I’m no scholar. But, like Scollan, I learned about him in school and I’ve read a few things.
In “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about how Lincoln, as the book jacket puts it, was able “to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.”
It’s an anecdote near the end of that book that has stayed with me. During a visit to the “wild and remote” area of the North Caucasus near the beginning of the 20th century, the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (“War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina”) was asked by a tribal chief to tell stories about the famous men in history. Tolstoy talked about “Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great and Napoleon,” but what the people of the distant land wanted to hear about was Lincoln.
Lincoln, said Tolstoy as quoted in the book, “was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together.”
In 2007, Doris Kearns Goodwin was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Connecticut Hospital Association, held at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington, and I had a chance to talk with the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. At the time, “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” was her most recent book.
I’ve written about her Southington visit several times since. Since we’re rapidly approaching Election Day, it’s a good opportunity to highlight the traits that made Lincoln so great a leader. Those included “his ability to acknowledge error and the willingness to bring in people who will question your leadership,” Goodwin told me.
Other traits, to quote from the story about her speech, included: “the capacity to listen to differing points of view, the ability to acknowledge errors and learn from mistakes, the willingness to share credit for success and the willingness to shoulder blame for the failure of subordinates.”
Lincoln is a high standard, but these leadership qualities can be seen as guideposts, traits we would like to see in those we trust to navigate our way to the future.
I was going to say something about the importance of voting, but you get the idea. When you go to the polls you are connecting to the greatness of the nation. You are part of it, too. We neglect that at our peril.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at email@example.com.