I was privileged to offer presentations recently about Lincoln and Grant at Oxford University and to Members of Congress in Washington.
Accepting an invitation from Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute, I spoke on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on October 16. After examining what I believe was Lincoln’s greatest speech, for this English audience I explored the quite different reactions of the English press to Lincoln at the beginning and at the end of his presidency. In their initial impressions, the press demeaned him as “the village lawyer.” How different were their responses to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The Saturday Review wrote, “If it had been composed by any other American politician, it would have been boastful, confident, and menacing.” The London Spectator, using biblical imagery, editorialized, Lincoln “seems destined to be one of those ‘foolish things of the world’ which are destined to confound the wise, one of those weak things which shall ‘confound the things which are mighty.’”
Two weeks later The John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress invited me to speak to members of Congress at a breakfast on October 30. Fourteen members of the House of Representatives and four spouses responded. The Library of Congress specified the title: “Leadership Lessons from Lincoln and Grant.”
For Lincoln, I focused on the creative tension between ambition and humility. Thus, a 23-year-old Lincoln, announcing his first candidacy for political office in 1832, wrote: “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 of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”
For Grant, after two terms as President, he set off on a world tour. On July 4, 1878, the American Consul in Hamburg, Germany, toasted Grant as the man who won the Civil War and saved the nation. Not known for his public speaking, Grant spoke up, “I must dissent from one remark of our Consul, to the effect that I saved the country during the recent war. If our country could be saved or ruined by the efforts of many one man, we should not have a country, and we should not be now celebrating the Fourth of July . . . What saved the Union was the coming forward of the young men of the nation. . . .To their devotion we owe the salvation of the Union. The humblest soldier who carried a musket is entitled to as much credit for the results of the war as those who were in command.”
Lincoln and Grant understood the balance between ambition and humility.
At the end of the meeting, the wife of a Congressman told me her husband was retiring after more than two decades of service. With tears in her eyes, she asked, “Do you think it is possible humility can ever return to our politics.”
On the same day, the Library of Congress hosted an Author Salon, an afternoon public event in the splendid Jefferson Building. This fall, the two previous authors were Evan Thomas, speaking on his new book on Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Candice Millard, one of my favorite authors, speaking on her two recent books on the young Winston Churchill and President James Garfield. Colleen J. Shogan, Assistant Deputy Librarian of Collections and Services, interviewed me.
I have delayed this communication, wanting to add the link to the video of the public event, but I just learned it takes about a month for a video to be put up on the John W. Kluge Library of Congress website.
At this moment, many are focused on the meaning of leadership. I believe we write biographies for at least two reasons. First, to learn from the examples of leaders of the past. Second, to hold up a mirror to our times and our leaders.