John C. Waugh is the author of One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War.
As we celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday this year, a fundamental question still lingers about that great man: What made him great?
How did this tall, angular, sad-faced, joke-telling hick of a giant from the frontier, with absolutely no executive experience, become what most historians consider the greatest president in our history—at the most desperate time in our history? What sleight of divine hand or alignment of the stars mixed to produce this human phenomenon—at just the moment we most needed him?
There was nothing apparent in his genes that could have produced him. His father, Thomas, was a simple, unlettered frontier farmer and carpenter. His birth mother, Nancy, was an overworked frontier woman whom the times treated hard and let die too young.
But there were clues in Lincoln's youth in southern Indiana that suggested latent greatness. He was an avid reader, devouring any book he could get his hands on in that book-starved frontier—all borrowed, because he had none of his own. One neighborhood boy said of him that he "soared above us," reading his books "whilst we played." His cousin Dennis Hanks said "it didn't seem natural, nohow, to see a feller read like that."
Such an attitude is foreign to us today, but in Lincoln's time children on the frontier had no formal education at all, or very little. Most could not read, many didn't feel they needed to. Lincoln, having less than a year of formal schooling, and that hit-and-miss, had to do it on his own. There was no such idea then as "no child left behind." Many were left behind and bringing them along was not a priority.
Even Lincoln's physical structure—his great height bursting all contemporary bounds, suggested something out of the ordinary. As he grew to manhood, it was apparent that he had, to match his height, a towering, uncommon, and original mind. Coupled with that, he soon exhibited an uncommon ability—despite his less than a year of formal schooling—to eloquently articulate that uncommonness and originality. Honing his rough-hewn, self-hewn intellect in the practice of law and immersion in politics, he developed the ability to speak and write so clearly, to articulate ideas so powerfully, that the least lettered to the best educated could understand him and be moved by what he said.
His ability to couple these outside-the-box talents with an ability to also think outside the box made for an uncommon human package. He thought deeply and to the point. His law partner, Billy Herndon, wrote of his "profound analytical power ... the strongest man I ever saw, looking at him from the elevated standpoint of reason and logic."
Lincoln had soaring ambition, which Herndon described as "a little engine that knew no rest." He wanted desperately in life to be somebody and to do something in the world. In his first bid for elective office, the Illinois legislature, he said, "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem."
If Barack Obama is the new Lincoln, as many suggest, that same drive to be something in order to do something worthy of esteem must to some degree also power his ambition a century and a half later.
When there were setbacks to Lincoln's ambition—as there were more than once—he raged against them, telling Herndon, "How hard—oh, how more than hard—it is to die and leave one's country no better for the life of him that lived and died her child!"
After Lincoln's one unsuccessful term in Congress in 1849, he believed he had no further future in politics. He returned to his law practice for the next five years, riding the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit. But it was five years that made him what he would become. As he traveled the circuit he read of the great issue threatening to shatter the Union—slavery. He read widely and thought deeply on it in those years in exile. In 1854, when his great Illinois political rival, Stephen A. Douglas, rammed the Kansas Nebraska Act through Congress, allowing slavery into any territory in the Union, the great issue thundered toward a climax.