President Lincoln: Grace Under Pressure

Bust of President Lincoln, Springfield, Ill.

Bust of President Lincoln, Springfield, Ill.

One of the exhibits in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield is the “Whispering Gallery.”  The online description of the gallery states that it is a “twisted, nightmarish hallway where you can hear brutally unkind things said about Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln during their early months in Washington. On the walls are cruel caricatures and barbed political cartoons that attack the Lincolns.” I remember walking through the gallery for the first time. My ears were filled with multitudes of various people voicing-and sometimes shouting- their opinions about Lincoln or something he had done or was about to do. I realized in a more sure way how those voices were constantly being offered to Lincoln- and were often counter with others. When I arrived at the end of the gallery-there was Lincoln. He was standing in a position of contemplation while all the different voices swiled around him.   Then I thought: “Lincoln couldn’t win no matter what he did-if he had listened solely to the rantings of all those who knew “what was best” in his choices.” It took a very special individual to deal with all those opinions, demands, and unsolicited offerings that he had been exposed to daily while President. Yet, he forged his own way. He made the decisions he thought were best-often after careful deliberation weighing the various viewpoints. And he did so in a way that I describe as “grace under pressure.”
President Lincoln had a mountain of problems to deal with. Even as he was heading to Washington, the nation was splitting. War was just around the corner. For all practical purposes, the South didn’t support him. He wasn’t even on the ballots in the South for the Presidential election. He had death threats almost immediately. He also had “enemies” in his own cabinet. His problems were immense. Think of all the problems he had with his Generals. Think of all the Union defeats-all the casaulties-the broken homes-the BLOOD. He carried all this and more on his shoulders. Oh, he had his moments of depression. Scholars, have noted, however, that as President he kept the outward signs of depression under control. He didn’t have any suicidal episodes that are known during his terms of office. He even experienced the death of a son in the White House. Yet, he functioned amazingly well for all the stress he had-displaying grace under pressure.
Ernest Hemingway defined “guts” as grace under pressure. Certainly Lincoln had “guts.” Hemingway also defined “courage” that way. Obviously, grace under pressure describes a person who preserves a calmness and civility while going through great stress. gives the following example of grace under pressure: “Say you’re working as the boss of a team and you’ve got a deadline to meet, grace under pressure means you don’t stomp around the office yelling at people, pulling your hair out, sweating and generally going crazy.” Well said, I think.
How did Lincoln do it? How did he handle all the stress of the office and remain so under control? I think part of the answer was his sense of humor. Lincoln really didn’t take himself too seriously. He also had a way of not taking things so seriously-when he could. It has to do with viewpoint really. He was able to somehow sort through all the “stuff” of daily life and prioritize it in a way that put it in perspective. He used humor to assist in putting things in his mind in a way he could then better “file” them in his mental filter. By applying humor to certain things, the problems became manageable. He had once commented something to the effect that if he didn’t have hunor he would die. James C. Humes gives a funny Lincoln anecdote in his book: ‘The Wit & Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln':
“Lincoln was once called out of New Salem on an important case. He hired a horse from a livery stable. The horse turned out to be a leaden-footed nag. When Lincoln returned a few days later, he took the plodding equine back to the stable. He then asked the owner, “Keep this horse for funerals?”
“No indeed,” replied the outraged livery owner. “Glad to hear it,” said Lincoln, “because if you did, the corpse wouldn’t get there in time for the resurrection.”
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