Unfortunately, in today’s world, there is a scarcity of enlightened leadership. Politics has become known as a dirty business. Presidents and Prime Ministers put personal ambition or partisan interests over the good of their nations. Ethics are often cast aside in favour of profits; opportunities for peace are lost to feed inflated egos.
Out of a deep concern for the future of our planet and the need to place it in safe hands, I have lent my support to a Leadership Centre that is being built by Illinois College to nurture values based on leadership qualities among its student body. In connection with this worthwhile endeavour, during mid-May, I travelled to the Illinois cities of Jacksonville and Springfield.
Whilst there, I was inducted by the college as a member of its Phi Alpha Literary Society - a rare honour that I am proud to share with such luminaries as the author and former US Representative from Illinois and author of A #Lincoln: a Crucible of Congress Paul Findley, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, the Pulitzer Prize recipient Professor David Herbert Donald, the Palestinian- Jordanian scholar and author Rami Khouri - and, most notably America 16th #President Abraham #Lincoln. Naturally, I was overwhelmed to find myself in such illustrious company and was determined to represent Phi Alpha - founded in 1845 to pursue “the attainment of truth” - in the best way I could.
Of course, I’ve always had respect for #President #Lincoln’s great achievements in the abolition of slavery and his ability to unite his country. But, today, I know so much more thanks to my friend Paul Findley and his family, who showed me around Abraham #Lincoln’s Presidential Library and Museum. This is not only an historical repository but also gives an insight into #Lincoln’s personal life with such artefacts as the book with which he taught himself arithmetic, his office clock and his trademark stovepipe hat. There, too, the visitor can take a journey through the #President’s life from the basic wood cabin in Indiana where he spent his early years to the White House.
For me, the experience was inspirational. This is a leader who embodies the principles of which America was founded: liberty, democracy and the equality of man. He started out with little except courage, vision, determination and integrity; qualities that helped him lead his people away from the scourge of civil war that threatened to tear America apart. If democratic nations chose their leaders based on the tenets which made #Lincoln great, the world would be a better place. It’s little wonder that he is the most written about politician in history with 8,000 major works centring on his life.
Abe #Lincoln was born on March 4, 1809 in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky. His father Thomas was a farm owner who refused to use slaves on religious grounds and found it hard to compete with his slave-owning neighbours. #Lincoln’s mother Nancy died when he was just nine-years-old from ‘milk sickness’: a disease contracted by cows after ingesting a poisonous herb. She has been described as “stoop shouldered” and “fervently religious” but #Lincoln credited his mother for his own natural intelligence and, indeed, with only 18-months of schooling under his belt he was largely self-taught. His father Thomas wasted little time before marrying a woman called Sarah Bush Johnston with whom Abraham became close even as his relationship with his father cooled.
Prompted by fear of the dreaded milk sickness, in 1830, the family moved to Illinois. Now 22-years-old, the young Abraham spent his time river canoeing, wrestling and reading books for which he would walk miles in order to borrow. His mimicry and story-telling talents made him popular. Following stints as a boatman, a postmaster, a storekeeper and a surveyor, he volunteered to fight in the 1932 Black Hawk War and was promoted to Captain. He was later to joke that he had more encounters with mosquitoes than Indians.
It was around this time that #Lincoln’s thoughts turned to politics. His first attempt to become a politician having failed due to a lack of funds, connections and educational credentials, he decided to study law. In 1837, he was admitted to the bar when he moved to Springfield Illinois where he developed a thriving partnership.
Now that he was established in a career, it was time to marry. His first lady love having succumbed to disease, in 1842 he married Mary Todd, a high-spirited and well educated girl from an old moneyed Kentucky family. They had four sons but only one survived until adulthood.
Four years after his marriage, in 1846, #Lincoln was finally elected to the House of Representatives. Once there, he aligned himself with the Whigs and spoke out against the Mexican-American War, which won him few friends in his own constituency. When his term ended, he was offered the governorship of the Oregon Territory; a post he turned down. Instead, he moved to Springfield to continue practicing law.
In 1854, he returned to the political arena as a Republican where he made his first - and often repeated – speech on the evils of slavery. “…I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world and enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites…”
During the winter of 1860/1961 at a time when #Lincoln was #President-Elect, the State of South Carolina announced its withdrawal from the Union and was soon followed by six further states keen to join the new Confederate States of America led by Jefferson Davis.
When #Lincoln took office as #President on March 4, 1861, he hoped to preserve the Union by passing an amendment to the Constitution, giving those states where slavery was prevalent the right to hold slaves. But the secessionists wanted more.
April 12, 1861 marked the start of the Civil War when Union troops were fired upon causing #Lincoln to retaliate. Before long, another four states had joined the Confederacy.
Despite his hatred of killing or violence - he wouldn’t even hunt animals – #Lincoln reluctantly became a war president. In July, 1862, Congress moved to liberate slaves with the Second Confiscation Act in the hope that it would demoralise slave owners by weakening their finances.
Although he found war distasteful, #Lincoln faithfully read dispatches from the front lines and made it a point to encourage his soldiers on the battleground. It’s reported that he was sometimes so close to the fighting that he had to dodge bullets. “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” he was to admit.
He was also a competent military strategist who proved his ability to choose his commander when he picked General Ulysses S. Grant to lead the fight – who later became the 18th #President of the United States. And he showed a talent for bringing antagonists together and smoothing ruffled feathers.
A fierce proponent of civil liberties, it distressed him that during the War he had to suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus and was criticised for making illegal and arbitrary arrests. He argued, however, that in such times his action was necessary and constitutional, saying, “Must I shoot a simpleminded soldier boy who deserts” and “not touch the head of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”
The armies of the Confederacy were finally defeated at the famous Battle of Gettysburg, which was the war’s turning point. In his much quoted Gettysburg Address, #Lincoln hoped that “…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
As the fighting continued, #Lincoln turned his attention to the day after when he hoped the southerners would form new state governments willing to find ways in which whites and former slaves could live together. However, some in his administration were keen to occupy the south militarily and award the freed slaves ownership of plantations belonging to their previous masters. #Lincoln, however, had his sights upon an amicable reunification of the country, which such punishments would have hindered.
As the newspapers of the day reported, towards the end of the Civil War, ‘Honest Abe’ as he was sometimes called was a popular hero among Unionists. The Washington Chronicle praised him for his “sure judgment…and great calmness of temper, great firmness of purpose, supreme moral principle, and intense patriotism.” The Liverpool Post in England extolled his inner virtues of faithfulness, honesty, resolution, humour and courage, which it said, would “go a long way to make up a hero.” Today’s leaders can only dream of such media accolades.
But #President #Lincoln wasn’t everyone’s hero. Just three days after the surrender of Confederate forces he had a dream which he related to friends. “There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping…” The dream ends with a throng of people around a corpse whose face is covered when #Lincoln asks “Who is dead in the White House?” He is answered by a guard who says, “The #President…he was killed by an assassin.”
The dream turned out to be a premonition. Three days later, on April 14, 1865, he took his wife to the Ford Theatre to see the comedic play “Our American Cousin”. The General and Mrs. Grant had also been invited but declined because the two wives couldn’t bear to be in the same room together.
Lurking in the theatre was John Wilkes Booth, a disgruntled actor who supported the Confederation. Booth was familiar with the play and knew when to expect loud laughter that would muffle a gunshot. Booth awaited one of the funniest parts of the play to shoot the #President in the back of the head. As the audience panicked, he escaped on horseback to meet up with co conspirators. But he was later tracked to a barn where he was shot and killed by a soldier. His conspirators, including one woman, were later found and tried by a military tribunal.
As the nation mourned, General Grant said his friend was “incontestably the greatest man I ever knew”.
It’s no wonder that Illinois College is proud of its association with this rare individual, who stuck by his principles through thick and thin. #Lincoln gained his entire college-level education from six of its former students and many became #Lincoln’s trusted friends. #Lincoln was also made an honorary member of the two campus literary societies: Phi Alpha and Stigmatic.
Last year, the College unveiled a statue of a youthful #Lincoln patting his dog as he reads a textbook. Called Preparing for Greatness, it will stand as a reminder to all who pass by that nothing is impossible for someone with character, determination, integrity and the will to succeed.
There will never be another Abraham #Lincoln, but who knows what calibre of leaders the College’s new Leadership Centre will produce. Illinois College should be applauded for recognising a need and working to make a difference