Learning from Lincoln: The importance of presidential humility

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With a presidential election just a couple of months away, and both the Democratic National Convention and its Republican counterpart just finishing, a fundamental question has emerged once again: what is the ideal model of leadership for our public figures — and who most embodies it?

To answer the first part of that question, we need to look to the pages of America’s past — to what I like to call the Abraham Lincoln model. 

The story of our 16th president teaches us many things about the types of people we wish to see in public office during moments of deep challenge. Perhaps most of all, it shows us the importance of being humble. It demonstrates that humility breeds empathy, while arrogance yields division and failure. And it’s a lesson embodied in one of the most famous moments in our history books: in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on a seminal battlefield of the Civil War. 

There, Abraham Lincoln would give meaning to the cause of freedom; breathe new life into the idea of a government of, by, and for the people; and commemorate the courage of those who gave their “last full measure of devotion” on that hallowed ground.

Yet what stands out is not merely the pitch-perfect definition of the American ideal. Lincoln asserted that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here.” Coming in the greatest speech in the American canon, that phrase was not an expression of false modesty nor just a poor prediction of how that tribute would be recorded. It was a symbol of deep-seated humility.

This is one of the facets that sets Lincoln apart from nearly every other commander-in-chief — his dignity, eloquence, and integrity, all wrapped up in a leader willing to admit his mistakes, accept his shortcomings, and learn from them.

And this wasn’t a feature bred solely by the presidency. In December 1859, Lincoln responded to a request for a short sketch of his life by writing: “There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me. If anything be made out of it, I wish to be modest, and not go beyond the material.”

Over time, both major political parties have tried to adopt Lincoln as their own and carry forward his extraordinary legacy. But political figures today would do well to rededicate themselves to the pillars of the Lincoln model: the idea that humility is a source of strength. That character matters more in the highest offices of our land than any individual policy.

Lincoln’s extraordinary example finds good company in biblical tradition, in what Deuteronomy depicts as the core trait required for kings of Israel — “that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren.” 

And it discovers a kindred spirit in the mantra conveyed to Joe Biden by his parents — that “no one’s better than you, but you’re better than nobody.” That credo takes its cue from Lincoln. It’s a reminder that a humble man with a big heart, with an ability to put himself in other people’s shoes and treat them as equals, is best equipped to govern in times of trial.

We now sit at a crossroads of deep crises — the unprecedented pandemic, the unmatched economic devastation, the racial turmoil at home, the uncertainty abroad — and we need leaders willing to live up to Lincoln’s standard, or at least try. 

Nobody, on their own, can address or solve each of these challenges, let alone all of them. Just as Lincoln knew he alone could never hope to keep the union together, a dose of humility could do us some good right now.

And as we reflect on the GOP convention — the same event which, 160 years ago, took Lincoln from rail-splitting failed Senate candidate to major party nominee — we should keep this notion in mind: who strives to be like Lincoln? Even if no one can reach that ideal, who aspires to it? 

The answer could not be more critical.

When men and women lead America in the mold of Lincoln, who acknowledge their inadequacies and strive to do better, then we can meet moments such as this one. Then we can forge a future where children get a decent education, workers earn a good wage, immigrants are treated fairly, families can access health care, and communities of color know the blessings of equality.

When individuals of honesty lead America, then all of us are safer. Because arrogance alienates our allies and isolates us from our friends. But character builds trust among other nations, faith in America’s moral authority, and confidence in our missions to promote human rights and pursue peace.

Presidents can seek and achieve new levels of greatness. Yet only if they see themselves not as superior beings, but as fellow citizens, if they are then willing to choose the path of humility; and if they work every day toward the model of the Great Emancipator. 

Menachem Genack is rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, N.J. and author of “Letters to President Clinton.” He teaches Talmud and Jewish Law at Touro College and Yeshiva University.

Tags Abraham Lincoln Articles Ethics Humility Joe Biden Philosophy Virtue

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