Historian Ronald White: Lincoln was a man of his time, with a wisdom for today’s political age

August 16, 2021

A nation riven with strife and seemingly split into two irreconcilable halves, each claiming to be the “real” America; what is a legislator in such days to do? To whom can he or she turn for inspiration?

Acclaimed historian and best-selling author Ronald C. White suggests one of the nation’s first presidents from the Midwest, Abraham Lincoln.

“He can’t help us with climate change, he can’t tell presidents what to do about Afghanistan,” White said in a featured presentation in July at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting. “But his words, ideas and values stretch across time.”

For meeting attendees, White traced that wisdom through Lincoln’s own words, from his Young Men’s Lyceum speech in January 1838 to his second inaugural address in March 1865. In the Lyceum speech, for example, Lincoln already foresaw that American democracy can only be undone by its citizens:

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln was a man of his time — the early to mid-19th century — and should be judged by the standards of his day, not ours, White said. He became a politician before he became a lawyer, and he decided to become a great public speaker. His humility and ability to note and deal with failure, as expressed in notes for a July 1850 law lecture, are illustrative:

“I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points where I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. … Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a surprising opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”

“Can you imagine a modern politician/lawyer [saying likewise]?” White asked attendees before quipping, “You don’t have to answer that.”

White closed with perhaps the best-known portion of Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865:

“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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Words about democracy. Words of personal humility. Words of respect and compassion for others.

“Lincoln’s wisdom still speaks to us today,” White said. “They’re 19th-century words, but I think we need to hear them in the 21st century.”