Monday, March 21, 2016

Who Do I Want to Be President? Abraham Lincoln

The Philippine presidential election is about two months away, and I’m still pretty much undecided who I will vote for.  When I was recently asked who I want to be president, I answered jokingly, “Abraham Lincoln.”  I further explained that Lincoln is my most favorite president in history and I will probably vote for the one that I feel is closest to his essence (though none of these five presidentiables are marginally in the same level of Lincoln).

There was a time during my childhood when I primarily enjoyed reading biographical and historical books – especially when it comes to wartimes (in fact, back then, I was more interested and familiar with world history than Philippine history, which was what was being taught at school); this was a time when I still had a naïve, romanticized perspective on war.  During these readings, I found myself drawn to the presidents of the United States of America – again, particularly to the presidents that served during times when the country was engaged in any form of war.  I have a volume of books on US presidents until Bush, Sr. which my parents bought from the “late” MV Doulos (a bookstore-ship that visited our city twice during my childhood; will write a tribute to it sometime in the future), and I read them thoroughly.  Among the US presidents, I became deeply fascinated with Abraham Lincoln, who served during one of my most “favorite” wars in history (again, I was a kid with a naïve, romanticized perspective on war), the American Civil War.

As I read more and more about Lincoln – in articles, books, passages, etc. – my fondness and admiration grew.  Thus, I’ve been an Abraham Lincoln fan since I was young (for the record, my second most favorite US president is Thomas Jefferson, for being an all-around genius).  In fact, a decade ago, 16-year-old me already wrote an essay (a sloppy one) on Abraham Lincoln, in which I called him “The Best President of America.”  In this new essay, I will not only be reiterating the details I had stated in that previous essay, but furthermore, I will also explain why the 16th President of the United States is my benchmark for what a president of a country should basically be.

Lincoln was born in a poor pioneer family and had a typical “rags-to-riches” story.  He lacked formal education, but he was very bookish growing up and was basically self-educated.   He worked on his father’s farm until he was nineteen, in which he learned how to be a hard worker, though he didn’t necessarily enjoyed it.  As he stated later in his life, “My father taught me to work, but not to love it.  I never did like to work, and I don't deny it.  I'd rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh -- anything but work.”  It’s a quote that very much defined Lincoln’s personality.  Nevertheless, his experience on the farm instilled in him a good work ethic.

At 22, he left home and became a store clerk.  He also served briefly as a captain of a local volunteer force during the Black Hawk War in 1832.  After the war, he went into a partnership and ventured into the store business, which failed.  It took him fifteen years to pay his debts.  He then worked as a local surveyor and a Postmaster.  At the same time, he taught himself law.  He was admitted to the Bar in 1836 (I guess back then, one can become a lawyer without getting a degree from a law school).

Lincoln started engaging in politics at a young age.  Before becoming president, he was elected to both state and national House of Representatives.  However, he also experienced several significant failures in securing appointments, nominations, and elections for office, which includes the first time he ran for state legislature in 1832 and, most notably, his bids for Senate in 1854 and 1858 (two years later, he became president).

Lincoln had a hard life right from the start.  He was born into poverty, and then experienced a series of disheartening failures.  But through all of these, he was able to have the chance to discover and exercise an important quality in himself: dogged determination.  He never gave up.  When life knocked him down, he rose on his feet and pushed forward till he prevails.  When life got hard, he worked harder.

In fact, his life never got easier when he became president.  But the previously hard life he had prior that somewhat prepared and toughened him to lead his country on what probably its darkest time in history: the American Civil War.  During this time, he had to deal with an incredible amount of pressure, since it was his responsibility to prevent the country from being permanently torn apart.  As he worked on this gargantuan task, he had to endure oppositions from all sides.  Not all of his cabinet were supportive of him.  He was constantly being criticized and called to resign.  He also suffered in his domestic life, with his mad wife’s regular naggings and son’s death.  Lesser men would have folded from the pressure.  But he pressed on with herculean will and tenacity through all of these.  And thus, he succeeded in the end in keeping the Union whole under his watch.  This makes him a perfect embodiment of a strong, responsible president.

Lincoln was also a man of integrity.  He earned himself the nickname of “Honest Abe” due to his reputation of being an honest lawyer (a term that’s more of an oxymoron these days).  He billed fair, and he refused to take up cases if he deemed it to be not morally, albeit legally, right even if it could have earned him a handsome fee.  Moreover, he had heart.  If I remember it correctly, there’s this one anecdote in which he was compelled to represent someone who has a lawsuit claim against a poor widow.  He took up the case and gravely asked for a retainer, which the plaintiff readily provided.  He then secretly gave the amount to the defendant, who therefore used it to pay her debt.

Lincoln’s uncompromising morality is a very important quality to have in a president.  It means that a president should consistently uphold and fight for what is right, even in the face of severe antagonism or temptation.  A strong-willed leader is not enough.  In fact, to have a strong-willed and self-serving leader is a terrifying thought.  What made Lincoln a great strong-willed leader is the fact that he utilized his strong will for doing what’s good for the country, not on what would benefit him.
An important moral issue at that time was slavery, and Lincoln stood against it.  Though he was reluctant in identifying himself as an abolitionist, he had expressed opposition to slavery with enough emphasis to make the pro-slavery South feel so anxious that he would use his presidential powers to forcibly abolish slavery if elected.  Thus, when he won the election, the Southern states seceded.

Ironically, by seceding, the South actually gave Lincoln the opportunity to do exactly what they fear he was going to do: the utter eradication of slavery.  Indeed, he was against the slavery, but he had a moderate, gradual vision of its end.  He was being realistic.  He understood that the Constitution prevented the federal government from interfering on states where slavery was already considered legal.  His strategy was to stop the spread of the practice of slavery on new states by offering monetary rewards to slave owners in states that agreed to end slavery.  However, the South’s secession made it possible for Lincoln to engineer the Emancipation Proclamation, which basically abolished slavery.  With the Civil War brewing, it was primarily intended (or disguised?) as a war tactic – as punishment to Southern states for their rebellion, and to encourage Southern slaves to leave their masters and join the Union forces.  If the South hadn’t seceded, Lincoln would have had not the necessary catalyst to bring about the immediate end of slavery.

This was a perfect display of Lincoln’s political savvy.  Indeed, he showed that even if one is a president of noble disposition, it doesn’t mean he didn’t need to know how to be cunning.  (The terrific 2012 biopic Lincoln, though not quite fully accurate and free of creative liberties, showed how Lincoln was a master political tactician in directing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.)  In order to get the job done effectively, a great president needs to know how to think of clever ways in exploiting any situation – just as what Lincoln was able to pull off.

But not only is Lincoln smart, he also had a sharp, matchless wit.  We get to know this facet of Lincoln because there are plenty of notable anecdotes recollected about him.  Now, we don’t know how much of these were true, but it’s likely that he had such a magnetic personality that the experience of meeting him always resulted to a memorable story worthy of being told to others.  Through these accounts, Lincoln is painted as a funny, warm, down-to-earth, wise individual.  He was known for having a wonderful sense of humor and being a master storyteller.  He had the habit of spontaneously telling jokes or funny anecdotes.  He seemed to be the kind of fellow one would easily find pleasing and fun to hang out with.

Being likable and relatable are always big pluses – especially to a president.  And, again, Lincoln perfectly embodied these qualities.

Ironically, he suffered from melancholia – not that surprising considering all the things he had gone through.  His wit and jokes and tales probably served as an effective coping mechanism for him.

There’s always something admirable about men who wrestle with depression, and yet whose personalities allow them to find in themselves to laugh, be cheerful, and be optimistic.  And Lincoln was perhaps the best of them.
But what I think is the most important thing about Lincoln as president was his comprehension of and submission to God’s sovereignty.  This he emphatically and beautifully articulated during his Second Inaugural Address: 
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

However, he didn’t start out having such profound insight. In fact, he wasn’t even a Christian when he became a president. Though he was much familiar with Biblical texts since he was an avid reader, he was a religious skeptic for most his life. But the horrors of the Civil War and his personal trials would eventually draw him to Christ and find solace in his presence. Amidst the chaos around and within him, Lincoln was driven to a deeper realization of God’s divine sovereignty and a deeper trust in Him.

It’s commendable for a president to have the same depth of spiritual conviction as Lincoln’s – that, no matter what happens, God is always in control; His will always reigns supreme, and nothing comes to pass without Him ordaining it.  The deeper a president grasps this truth, the more compelled and frequently he would fall on his knees and seek the Sovereign God’s guidance in leading the country.

To summarize, here are the qualities of what I think makes an ideal president:
  • Good work ethic.
  • Strong will and tenacity.
  • Moral uprightness.
  • Political savvy.
  • Having a likable and relatable personality.
  • Deep understanding and appreciation of God’s sovereignty.
And for setting the standards, Abraham Lincoln is the greatest president the world has ever seen.

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