The Lincolnian virtues we need now

The Lincolnian virtues we need now
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One of Abraham Lincoln’s many virtues was magnanimity — he bore no grudges even to those who treated him poorly. This quality was on display throughout Lincoln’s life and political career. 

In 1855, Lincoln was hired to represent John H. Manny, the inventor of a mechanical reaper, who had been sued for copyright violation. Lincoln received a retainer and the promise of a substantial fee when the case was completed. The leader of the legal team was George Harding, a famed patent specialist. Without notifying Lincoln, Harding replaced Lincoln with Edwin Stanton, a nationally renowned lawyer. When the trial arrived, Lincoln traveled to Cincinnati for the trial and was ignored by Harding and Stanton. Harding, looking back on his first meeting with Lincoln, recalled his introduction to the “tall, rawly-boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing; his trousers hardly reaching his ankles.” For his part, Stanton remarked to Harding upon seeing Lincoln, “Why did you bring that damned long-armed Ape here? ... He does not know anything and can do you no good.” Lincoln stayed for the week of the trial and was thoroughly impressed by Stanton’s presentation and arguments. 

When Lincoln returned home, he told his partner William Herndon that he had been “roughly handled by that man Stanton.” Still, six years later, as president, Lincoln offered Stanton the position of Secretary of War. As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes:


Lincoln's choice of Stanton would reveal...a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness. As for Stanton, despite his initial contempt for the “long-armed Ape,” he would not only accept the offer but come to respect and love Lincoln more than any person outside of his immediate family. 

After Lincoln died by the assassin’s bullet in 1865, Stanton took two silver coins, placed them on Lincoln’s eyes, and said, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.” 

Salmon P. Chase was one of Lincoln’s rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. President Lincoln appointed Chase Secretary of the Treasury, but Chase never gave up his dream of the presidency for himself. A longtime advocate of abolition, Chase was favored by the Radical Republicans. Chase’s ambition and self-regard were legendary. Benjamin Wade, an Ohio senator from 1851 to 1869, said of his fellow Ohioan Chase: “Chase is a good man, but his theology is unsound. He thinks there is a fourth person in the Trinity.” 

Chase was constantly maneuvering to undermine Lincoln. Nevertheless, when there was an opening for Chief Justice's position on the Supreme Court, Lincoln nominated Chase, his longtime rival. “He used to say to me when I talked to him about Chase & those who did him Evil – ‘Do good to those who hate you and turn their ill will to friendship,’” Mary Todd Lincoln said about her husband.

“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 just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” With these words, Lincoln concluded his greatest speech, the Second Inaugural. But in fact, by these words, he lived his entire life. 


In selecting Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Watch live: Biden participates in HBCU homecoming Jennifer Aniston: 'It's not funny to vote for Kanye' MORE as his running mate, Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE demonstrated some of that same Lincolnian spirit. Harris had harshly criticized Biden during her own campaign for president, accusing the former vice president of making “very hurtful” comments about his friendly relationships with segregationist senators long ago. Despite this, Biden chose Harris as his running mate, showing the ability to put aside personal pride in the interests of picking a talented running mate whom he felt would help his ticket and help him govern. 

Especially in its current divided state, our country would benefit from more Lincolnian virtue in its leaders. In particular, more magnanimity like that displayed by Biden would go a long way in repairing some of the problems currently plaguing our country. 

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.