I recently came across a short essay that Theodore Roosevelt wrote about Abraham Lincoln while Roosevelt was still president. He wrote these words when "politician" and "statesman" were synonymous and when neither word carried an onerous connotation. Below are excerpts from this essay with my comments following:
"...Lincoln's deeds and words, are not only of consuming interest to the historian, but should be intimately known to every man engaged in the hard practical work of American political life. It is difficult to overstate how much it means to a nation to have as the two foremost figures in its history men like Washington and Lincoln. It is good for every man in any way concerned in public life to feel that the highest ambition any American can possibly have will be gratified just in proportion as he raises himself toward the standards set by these two men...Such a study of Lincoln's life will enable us to avoid the twin gulfs of immorality and inefficiency--the gulfs which always lie one on each side of the careers alike of man and of nation. It helps nothing to have avoided one if shipwreck is encountered in the other. The fanatic, the well-meaning moralist of unbalanced mind, the parlor critic who condemns others but has no power himself to do good and but little power to do ill--all these were as alien to Lincoln as the vicious and unpatriotic themselves. His life teaches our people that they must act with wisdom, because otherwise adherence to right will be mere sound and fury without substance; and that they must also act high-mindedly, or else what seems to be wisdom will in the end turn out to be the most destructive kind of folly. Throughout his entire life, and especially after he rose to leadership in his party, Lincoln was stirred to his depths by the sense of fealty to a lofty ideal; but throughout his entire life, he also accepted human nature as it is, and worked with keen, practical good sense to achieve results with the instruments at hand. It is impossible to conceive of a man farther removed from baseness, farther removed from corruption, from mere self-seeking; but it is also impossible to conceive of a man of more sane and healthy mind--a man less under the influence of that fantastic and diseased morality (so fantastic and diseased as to be in reality profoundly immoral) which makes a man in this work-a-day world refuse to do what is possible because he cannot accomplish the impossible...
...the historian (Lecky) draws an interesting distinction between the qualities needed for a successful political career in modern society and those which lead to eminence in the spheres of pure intellect or pure moral effort. He says:
"....The politician deals very largely with the superficial and the commonplace; his art is in a great measure that of skillful compromise, and in the conditions of modern life, the statesman is likely to succeed best who possesses secondary qualities to an unusual degree, who is in the closest intellectual and moral sympathy with the average of the intelligent men of his time, and who pursues common ideals with more than common ability.... Tact, business talent, knowledge of men, resolution, promptitude and sagacity in dealing with immediate emergencies, a character which lends itself easily to conciliation, diminishes friction and inspires confidence, are especially needed, and they are more likely to be found among shrewd and enlightened men of the world than among men of great original genius or of an heroic type of character."
The American people should feel profoundly grateful that the greatest American statesman since Washington, the statesman who in this absolutely democratic republic succeeded best, was the very man who actually combined the two sets of qualities which the historian thus puts in antithesis. Abraham Lincoln, the rail-splitter, the Western country lawyer, was one of the shrewdest and most enlightened men of the world, and he had all the practical qualities which enable such a man to guide his countrymen; and yet he was also a genius of the heroic type, a leader who rose level to the greatest crisis through which this nation or any other nation had to pass in the nineteenth century.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT SAGAMORE HILL, OYSTER BAY, N. Y., September 22, 1905.
Both of these men, TR and Lincoln, were statesmen in the best sense of the word. What I get out of this essay is that a politician/statesman has to be both moral and wise. Jesus told his disciples that we are to be "as wise as serpents yet as harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16). I feel like that many of our leaders today are the opposite-"harmless as serpents and wise as doves!" How we desperately need men and women who possess both great character and great wisdom to lead us now in the 21st, as both Lincoln and TR endeavored to do in the 19th and 20th centuries! I would to God that the men and women who are in office today would heed these words, written over 100 years ago, yet which still ring true today.
Wayne Nall Jr
\Want to read more? Click the first link below to access a more complete excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt's essay on Lincoln: