Although Lincoln led his life with integrity, it was his compassion that allowed him to serve others. Lincoln had a natural sense of empathy and could connect with his fellow citizens in a way that many of his predecessors could not. He needed this emotional strength in order to win over others. In a soon to be published book, Team of Rivals
(excerpts of which were published in Time magazine), author Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that while Lincoln was certainly a good speaker and an above-average lawyer, hardly anything was known about him when he was elected President and took the train to Washington.[i]
He needed a voice that would enable him to connect with those who did not know him. Lincoln was able to effectively put himself in the place of others, to understand their ideas and concerns, to advise without being judgmental, to admonish without condemning, and to listen with an open mind. For example, Lincoln’s role as the rescuer for the slaves is largely misunderstood. He was not always planning to free them, but rather wanted to attempt to stop slavery from spreading or maybe purchase their freedom. Although personally against slavery, he fully understood the South’s argument that slavery was necessary for their lifestyle and refused to condemn them for it because he knew it would not advance the cause of freedom.[ii]
He argued that instead of condemning the slave owners, we should try to understand their position. He once explained, “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up.”[iii]
Instead of condemning one another, Lincoln believed that men should aim for the hearts of their opponents, appealing to their humanity and desire for good will. He was able to bring both sides into the conversation and was admired and respected for it. With the ability to sense the attitudes and mindsets of his fellow Americans, Lincoln was able to choose the best time and place for progress to be made.
Lincoln’s compassion also helped him to keep a proper perspective and to recognize the gravity of the war. There were times during his Presidency that the White House was simply too much of a burden for him to live in, and he would often seek refuge outside the mansion to compose himself and focus his mind. In his 2005 book on presidential retreats, From Mount Vernon to Crawford, Kenneth Walsh writes that Lincoln spent almost one-fourth of his Presidency at the Soldiers’ Home, located in a military compound just outside Washington.[iv]
On the way there, Lincoln would sometimes stop by the “contrabands,” or camps that contained former slaves. He would speak with them and listen to the Negro spirituals such as “Nobody Knows What Trouble I See, but Jesus” and “Every Time I Feel The Spirit.” These stops may have moved Lincoln closer to abolition and sometimes moved him to tears.[v]
At other times, he would stop by the soldiers’ encampment and talk with the troops, sometimes having coffee and eating beans with them. He always seemed to express concern over the soldiers, and he was genuinely interested in their lives. One soldier remarked, “We always felt that the President took a personal interest in us. He never spoke absent-mindedly, but talked to the men as if he were thinking of them.”[vi]
Lincoln’s compassion for his fellow man always kept him mindful of the situation at hand, and he realized the importance of ending the war for the survival of all.
Kenneth Walsh, From Mount Vernon To Crawford (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 55.[v]