Abraham Lincoln: The Renaissance Man

Photo by May on Unsplash

The abundant stream of blog posts dried up in these past two weeks. I was on a roll before I wasn’t.

The biography Lincoln written by David Herbert Donald was a thrilling read that I picked up in the gift shop of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Donald’s detailed scrutiny into the life of ‘Honest Abe’ leads little to interpretation. While Lincoln’s career at the White House was heart wrenching and in many senses a tragedy, the most motivating part of Lincoln’s life lies in the early stages of his adulthood. Lincoln embodied the spirit of a Renaissance man. His experiences provide many lessons on how to balance working extremely hard while capitalizing on the opportunities life presents you.

When first my father settled here,

’Twas then the frontier line:

The panther’s scream, filled night with fear

And bears preyed on the swine.

This poem was written by Lincoln when he visited his family’s home many years after his childhood. The future US President was originally a Daniel Boone, John “Grizzly” Adams type figure. He recalled that in his childhood “We all hunted pretty much all the time” and at the age of eight an axe for chopping wood was placed into his hands due to his large figure. Lincoln’s childhood haunted him for years to come as his mother Nancy passed away from sickness. In a morbid poem written when he returned to his neighborhood he wrote:

I range the fields with pensive tread,

And pace the hollow rooms,

And feel (companion of the dead)

I’m living in the tombs.

Even without the dark childhood memories, Lincoln was itching to leave his home in Little Pigeon Creek. He was obsessed with books, studying, and poetry. He felt compelled to move on and couldn’t be bound to hard manual labor that lacked any ambition and education. After leaving his home Lincoln moved to New Salem. In the next ten years he tried nearly every type of work offered in Illinois. This included carpenter, a ferry director, a store clerk, a post man, soldier, blacksmith, surveyor, lawyer and a politician. In one of his first positions Abraham Lincoln was an assistant at a saw mill. He was attentive, always chatting with customers and meeting new people. When he didn’t have work Lincoln would be studying some form of education. He had a sharp mind and was able to recall a fifty-six line poem from memory. But Lincoln wasn’t just an intelligent young adult intent on studying grammar or geometry. One of my favorite stories of Abe begins when the store manager brags to a rough group of wilder boys that Lincoln is one of the smartest and strongest men in New Salem. According to the anecdote:

“The Clary’s Grove boys called his bluff. They cared not at all about Lincoln’s mental superiority, but they dared him to test his strength in a wrestling match with their champion, Jack Armstrong… …In the collective memory of New Salem residents, the contest was an epic one, and various versions survived… (including) how Armstong’s followers threatened collectively to lick the man who had defeated their champion until Lincoln volunteered to take them all on, but on at a time”.

Lincoln proved that he not only was an intelligent fellow but that he also was tough, strong and courageous. These characteristics helped him become very well-liked in New Salem as one person remarked, “Lincoln had nothing, only plenty of friends”.

Later Lincoln enlisted in the Black Hawk War. The conflict began when the Black Hawk tribe returned to Illinois trying to reclaim their native land. Lincoln enlisted and was elected as a militia captain. While his service wasn’t necessarily heroic or worthy of any great stories it adds another badge to the thin chest of the future leader.

Lincoln continued partaking in odd jobs such as chopping wood and being hired as the service postmaster delivering mail to the surrounding community. He was a man of integrity who felt that it was his duty to assist his neighbors. When a person didn’t pick up their mail at the post office he would put the letters in his large hat and often times walk miles to deliver them in person. Throughout these years he was barely making enough money to get by.

The two main qualities that would shape Lincoln’s legacy were grit and empathy. He rarely complained despite the poor living conditions, back-breaking labor, and having little money. He enjoyed the little things such as meeting new people, reading, debating and the occasional wrestling match. Through these interactions he created an opportunity for himself to be elected as a state legislator. He was self-taught in law and became one of the most well-known lawyers living in Illinois. Empathy led to a conviction to provide his whole heart, mind, and body to America, and the grit allowed him to overcome unthinkable obstacles during his presidency.

Bonus anecdote: Lincoln was no Don Juan. He was insanely awkward around women and could barely talk to eligible ladies. He was gangly, dirty and always wore clothes that were too small for him. He often struggled in his pursuit for a wife. But in this regard he again persevered. He married Mary Owens who was described as, “a handsome young woman with black hair, dark eyes, fair skin, and magnificent white teeth. She impressed everyone with her gay and lively disposition…”. For all you hopeless, dejected lovers out there, this is encouraging.

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