Abraham Lincoln’s expressive face impressed an author who remembered Lincoln’s gray-brown eyes as perhaps the saddest he had ever seen. “Yet, when a good story was told,” the author recalled, “whether by himself or another, his homely face lighted up till he was positively handsome.” In a largely pre-photographic world, however, the American people would come to know their president’s human quality by his moral courage and empathy.
As the green leaves of summer took on fall colors in 1862, one year after the Civil War’s opening battles, Lincoln’s courage and political judgment faced a defining test. The president announced, on the eve of a critical election, that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which would put slavery on the path to extinction. Significant numbers of the North’s white voters, harboring visceral racial prejudices, despised the Proclamation. Even moderate Republicans balked over this issue. As a result, Lincoln’s party suffered major losses in that fall’s Congressional elections.
Why had not Lincoln, arguably American history’s shrewdest politician, waited until after the elections for his unpopular move? Certainly, that has been the course taken by recent presidents. Yet, Lincoln knew that the loyalty and trust of the common people was an asset to be valued far above rubies, in the words of Proverbs, and not to be wasted buying electoral advantage with dishonesty. If the nation were to endure the Civil War, he needed the people’s trust. Indeed, for the coming trial by fire, Lincoln needed to win their love. Losing Congressional seats was simply the price that had to be paid to strengthen Lincoln’s bond with the people–as someone who meant what he said. Such is the sterner stuff of which leadership is made.
It does not surprise us to learn that when the Union cause was at its low ebb, the common people, though war weary, retained their personal affection for Lincoln. Their faith in him endured, even during the summer of 1864, when the casualty lists from the murderous battles in Virginia brought sorrow to every crossroads hamlet and town in the North. Their ranks dwindling daily, the toughest soldiers on the planet, the Union’s Army of the Potomac, still knew Lincoln simply as Father Abraham. Their chosen name for him testified both to their religious faith and their love for their commander. The reverential term, used by black and white soldiers alike, expressed as clearly as a bell that true leadership’s touchstone is love. With this emotional bond, Lincoln’s soldiers gave their last full measure of devotion, winning for the nation a new birth of freedom.