Lincoln Idealist and Pragmatist - Introduction


Abraham Lincoln




How did an unschooled woodcutter rise to become the president of America and steer the nation through its greatest crisis? What power in this man helped him to determine and direct the destiny of America?

Unity and liberty, two spiritual truths that are indispensable for a better world were intimate to Lincoln's being from the start — two truths that seem to have become the central thrust of his mission on earth. Perhaps Nature, therefore, planted him in a nation threat­ened by both slavery and disintegration; and be born into a family, which would sow the seeds of liberty early in his mind and heart.

Ideals are essential to bring about great change, but they need an immense executive power for the realization of such change. And Nature, it seems had decided to accomplish that in him; to chisel his instrumentality so that he would be capable of fulfilling the gigantic task ahead of him; a task that was as yet hidden from his sight.

Tor fifty years God rolled Abraham Lincoln through his fiery furnace. He did it to try Abraham and to purify him for his pur­poses. This made Mr. Lincoln humble, tender, forbearing, sym­pathetic to suffering, kind, sensitive, tolerant; broadening, deep­ening and widening his whole nature...1 , said William Herndon, Lincoln's Law partner.

1. Faith and Morals: Genesis, Deuteronomy, Micah, edited by David Felty, p. 310



Herndon was intuitive; Lincoln was obliged to rise higher and higher and look down upon humanity and see the great family of man as he called it in one of his speeches, what ancient India called vasudhaiva kutumbakam. In the dark days of the war, Lincoln's call to the Divine Guidance was the surrender of a man who had reached the summits of his own effort and now aspired to be led by Him, much like Draupadi and Arjuna:

`I... felt I must put all my trust in Almighty God... I had tried my best to do my duty and had found myself unequal to the task. The burden was more than I could bear1... 'I told Him that this war was His war, that this cause was His cause... And after that, I don't know how it was, and

I cannot explain it, a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into His own hands2...'

There was a deep-rooted sense of compassion in him. He says in his autobiography that when he was seven, he killed a turkey for his family dinner, and felt so much remorse that he never hunted game again in his life. He often wondered how he was placed in the midst of such a terrible war with bloodshed all around him.

His childhood and early youth aided in the development of his physical being. They were miserably poor, and he was compelled to labor on his family farm and among poor people to win their daily bread. Physical hardships earned him a robust body; by six­teen years of age he was six feet four in height in a lean muscular frame.

He was given to melancholy; he would often sink into great depression and sadness. But it was countered by a great resilience in him that used his resources of humour and story telling to pull himself out of it. It developed into an art that remained with him till the end; village children who listened rapt to his stories in his

  1. Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, Don Edward and Virginia Fehrenbacher, p. 406
  2. Rediscovering God in America, by Newt Gingrich, p. 32


provided an opportunity to learn something - jobless, he volun­teered for service in the Black Hawk War. Though he did not en­gage in combat it gave him experience of military life; and in his heart he felt great joy to be chosen captain by the men.

`Lincoln had nothing, only plenty of friends'1, is how an ac­quaintance described him. And he maintained his friendships through his presidency; 'he grew beyond his associates, but not away from them2'. He had great leadership qualities; he was fair and inherently honest; his friends trusted him completely and were willing to be led by him. There was no conscious effort towards this popularity; he flattered no one; it came naturally to him; he was wide in his being, kindly to all, such was the strength of his char­acter and the inner beauty and purity of his being. People thronged around him; the woodcutter from the Wild West was sought after by college boys who would often find him flat on his back reading a newspaper devouring all the information he could find about statesmen and politicians.

The debates at the local clubs had sharpened his power of rea­soning powers and developed and expanded his mental and ora­tory faculties; he would borrow books on political matters; soon his knowledge and interest in politics began to mature. He grew to love Henry Clay, his 'beau ideal of a statesman'3. His entry and subsequent and rise in politics gradually prepared his executive powers; it chiseled his intellect and strengthened his resilience.

He was so in tune with the workings of Nature, every diffi­culty was turned into a blessing and opportunity, releasing one thread only to pick up another. After losing the seat in the Senate, he returned home and devoted himself to his Law practice and his family, essential to the rhythm of his life, only to bounce back when a political crisis in the nation 'aroused him as he had never been before'4.

  1. The Life of Abraham Lincoln, by J. G. Holland, p. 60
  2. Lincoln's New Salem, by Benjamin P Thomas, p. 136
  3. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 57
  4. Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (1859-1865), Autobiography Written for Campaign, p. 167


He was kindly, he was simple, he was humble; he grew into a man of deep convictions and ideals and to uphold them he was not afraid to stand against the crowd. His spiritual strength was visible in his dealings with bullies in his youth and grew firmer to support his ideals during his presidency when he was not afraid 'to put his foot down'. He did not hesitate to assume unprecedented war powers when he thought it necessary for the safety of the nation despite his detractors who found his actions unconstitutional.

Lincoln was guided not by religion but by the spirit; he believed in God and the power and ultimate triumph of the right. This un­wavering faith in Divine Providence 'ran like a thread of gold through all his inner experiences of his life', - during the death of his own little sons as well as during the tormenting war that relentlessly swallowed its children. He saw himself increasingly as an instru­ment in God's hands and constantly asked for Divine Guidance. `Open on one side of his nature to all descending influences from Him to whom he prayed, and open on the other to all ascending influences from the people whom he served, he aimed simply to do his duty, to God and men. Acting rightly, he acted greatly. While he took care of deeds, fashioned by a purely ideal standard, God took care of results...,1 much like Arjuna who fought at Kurukshetra and left the results in the hands of Krishna. He became an open receptacle as God leaned to act out His Will through Lincoln...

As the president of the nation, committed to the constitution that permitted the states to choose to remain slave or free states, he professed only the preservation of the Union as the principle objective of war, though personally he hated slavery. He waited hopefully and patiently; and when the time was right he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Thenceforth, war was fought for the ideals of Unity as well as Liberty.

Yet complete equality for the Negroes he resisted, as did most men of his time. But he was plastic, open to change. Having wit­nessed their bravery on the battlefield, their intelligence, courage and conviction in their fight for liberty, and from his personal

1. The Life of Abraham Lincoln, by J.G.Holland, p. 542



acquaintance with educated African Americans, he humbly ac­knowledged their right to equality and opened the door for black enfranchisement.

Before he could sit back in satisfaction over the safe passage of the nation, he was snatched away by death that had been merci­lessly following him. Perhaps it was Divine Compassion that inter­rupted his sojourn on earth; his enemies would not have allowed him that relief• they would probably have harrowed him with end­less charges for the unconstitutionality of the war powers he had assumed.

`Humble child of the backwoods — boatman, ax-man, hired laborer, clerk, surveyor, captain, legislator, lawyer, debater, orator, politician, statesman, President, savior of the republic, emanci­pator of a race..."1 All this he became in one single life...

As Sri Aurobindo has said,

"Man approaches nearer his perfection when he combines in himself the idealist and the pragmatist, the originative soul and the executive power"2.

And so, Lincoln, 'a man after God's pattern'3, could steer his country into a safe harbour, having preserved the Unity of the na­tion and established the ideal of Liberty.

* * *

  1. Holland'sLife of Abraham Lincoln, by J.G. Holland, p. 544
  2. Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, Ideals and Progress, On Ideals, Volume 13, The Complete Works Of Sri Aurobindo © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1998
  3. Holland's Life of Abraham Lincoln, by J.G. Holland, p.36

Back to Content