Editor’s Note: Louis P. Masur is distinguished professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University. He is the author of “Lincoln’s Last Speech” and the forthcoming book “The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America.” Visit his website. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“The President quite unwell,” reported John Hay on November 26, 1863. On his return from the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery, where he delivered “a few appropriate remarks” that would stand to define the war and the meaning of America, Abraham Lincoln had taken ill with varioloid fever, a mild but highly contagious form of smallpox. Even the New York World, a virulent anti-administration newspaper, hoped that “the President will soon be restored to health and strength.”
Lincoln handled the illness with humor. He joked that since becoming president, crowds of people had asked him to give them something and now he had something he could give everyone. He also commented, in typical self-deprecating fashion, that being ill offered the consolation that the disease, which could leave scars, “cannot in the least disfigure me.”
I have been thinking about Lincoln as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to unfold. Public figures such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have modeled what it means to be a leader in a time of crisis. They have communicated the facts as they know them, have not shied away from telling the hard truth, have offered comfort to the grieving and have used humor, not to trivialize but to humanize these most difficult of times.
Part of what made Lincoln such an effective leader was that he never let the gravity of the situation, or his own tendencies toward melancholy, keep him from finding ways to offer solace and hope. In my research on Lincoln, time and again, I return to a letter he wrote on December 23, 1862, to Fanny McCullough, the daughter of his friend William McCullough, who had been killed in battle.
Lincoln had every reason not to reach out to Fanny. The war was not going well, there was opposition to his announcement of a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and suspension of habeas corpus, and in the November elections Republicans had taken a drubbing.
After the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Lincoln is said to have remarked, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”
But no matter how low he felt personally, even when in February 1862 his son Willie died in the White House, he was able to consider others and their needs.
In his condolence note to Fanny, who he heard was suffering terribly from her father’s passing, he wrote, “You can not now realize that you will ever feel better, is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again.”
Lincoln never stopped preparing for what lay ahead: In the midst of his illness, he formulated his plans for the reconstruction of the Union. He knew whatever actions he took would be judged and remembered. This is what he meant by his comment to Congress in December 1862, “We cannot escape history.” He was thinking of future judgments – our judgments – on their actions in the moment.
Lincoln encouraged people to consider how they would want to be remembered and to act accordingly. In a public letter addressed to his friend James C. Conkling, to be read at an Illinois rally of Union men in September 1863, Lincoln scolded those Democrats who wanted peace and objected to the enlistment of black soldiers with this vision of the future:
“And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
Lincoln was in effect telling Americans what Queen Elizabeth said Sunday in her address to Britain and Commonwealth countries: “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.”
Even toward those who acted poorly, Lincoln held no bitterness or animosity and this is what I marvel over most: his refusal to hold a grudge and his willingness to forgive. “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” he famously concluded his Second Inaugural, and he meant it. Asked what to do with the defeated rebels, he said “Let ‘em up easy.”
Vindictiveness was not part of his nature and he took to quoting the biblical verse “judge not that we be not judged.”
That is not to say he did not recognize the meanness and cruelty of others. “Human-nature will not change,” Lincoln observed. “In any future national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and as good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”
This is certainly a national trial, and it is a fitting time to look to Lincoln for lessons in leadership, for philosophy to learn wisdom from, and for a reminder that we too cannot escape history.