I have just finished listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on the Lincoln Presidency, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Although the book takes a largely uncritical view of Lincoln‘s political wisdom, it was compellingly told and insightful. What struck me most was the political power of magnanimity. Goodwin does not make this point explicitly, but it seems to me that the central friendship of the book, that between Lincoln and his political rival turned close friend, William Henry Seward, was rooted in the core virtue of magnanimity which both men embodied.
The magnanimity of Lincoln was revealed repeatedly throughout the story as Lincoln confounded rivals who under-estimated his ability to navigate the world of human politics. It was what allowed him to tolerate General McClellan‘s repeated challenges to his judgment and authority during the early stages of the war. It was what enabled him to draw on Salmon P. Chase‘s extraordinary ability to raise money for the war effort as Treasury Secretary even as Chase opposed him for the Republican nomination in the 1864 election. In these and many other cases, Lincoln acted always in a thoughtful, even manner, never allowing his anger to cloud his judgment or his understanding of the forces that animated his opponents.
William Henry Seward’s magnanimity was of a slightly different sort: he seems to have been free of pretty resentfulness and vindictiveness. After losing the 1860 Republican nomination for President, which everyone expected him to win, Seward was able to find it within himself, despite this disappointment, to campaign vigorously on Lincoln’s behalf in 1860. Many credit speeches he gave on Lincoln’s behalf for the ultimate Republican victory that year. He then accepted Lincoln’s nomination of him as Secretary of State (does this story sound familiar?) and became one of Lincoln’s closest friends and most important political advisors.
Perhaps the strong friendship between these two men was rooted in the shard virtue of magnanimity. What strikes me as worth holding always in mind is that magnanimity requires a great deal of ethical imagination: the ability to imagine one’s way in the position of another in order to gain insight into what animates that person. From this perspective, those initial impulses toward anger dissolve and new possibilities open for more productive modes of response. I will recall Seward and Lincoln as I make my way through the politics of the academy and everyday life, remembering not to respond in anger, but with empathy and magnanimity, for it is at once ethically generous and politically, far more effective.