It often looked like Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t survive his first year as president.
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The mere fact of his election so infuriated seven southern states that they seceded from the Union before he was sworn into office. Rumors of an assassination plot caused him to sneak ignominiously into Washington for his inauguration, disguised in a cap and cloak that for weeks became objects of derision by cartoonists.
Lincoln’s inaugural address did little to please the populace. Though we still quote his poetic “mystic chords of memory” the parts of the speech that the politicians of the day focused on were his refusal to call for emancipation, which upset the Radical Republicans, and his adamant attack on secession, which roused the ire of the remaining southern lawmakers and their border state brethren.
The speech made it clear that Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union, vowing to “to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government.” A little more than a month later a place belonging to the government, Ft. Sumter, fell to the confederacy and four more states signed on to the Southern cause.
Then it was all out war — a war that went badly for the Union starting with the unexpected rout at Bull Run. Lincoln couldn’t get his generals to fight; he couldn’t get the politicians to stop fighting and he couldn’t get Washington society to stop snubbing his wife.
A horrible first year for one of the nation’s greatest presidents might serve as a source of inspiration for Donald Trump who’s had his own rocky start —except.
Except just about everything.
Lincoln constantly sought to uplift the country and bring it together, reminding Americans of the “better angels of our nature,” not to divide and denigrate as this president does on an almost daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
If Twitter had been around and Lincoln foolish enough to use it, one can imagine a pre-dawn missive: “Get together people. This country is great and worth saving. Make America whole again.” (But he would have said it better.)
Though the president remained single-minded in his pursuit of Union, Lincoln voiced self-doubt, something we’ve never known Donald Trump to do.
Never self-aggrandizing, Lincoln demurred when Sojourner Truth declared him the best president in the history of the country after he finally endorsed emancipation.
Naming past presidents, Lincoln insisted “’they were just as good, and would have done just as I have if the time had come.”
Can you imagine Trump saying that? Or showing “as much respect and kindness to the colored persons present as to the whites,” as Sojourner Truth said Lincoln had done?
Humility, kindness, figuring out how to bring people together or when to separate from them if appropriate, patiently plotting the politics of the great issue of emancipation so that it could succeed — all contributed to the greatness of the man who managed to pull the nation back together. It was not just on the battlefield that America was saved.
Thank heaven today we have no overriding moral issue like slavery because there can be no issue like the horror of holding millions of Americans in bondage.
But we do have issues of inequality and exclusion facing us as a nation—issues that require a humble person willing to learn, a kind person ready to listen, a savvy person able to bring competing political forces together.
Donald Trump had a rough first year. That’s where his similarity to our 16th president ends.
This story is part of a weeklong series examining the first year of the Trump administration.