Déjà vu from the Life of Lincoln


In his whole life, he spent less than a year in a classroom.  He grew up on the frontier, moving from one rural setting to another as his father tried to find better land to farm. The law obliged him to work for his father until he was 21 – even though his Dad was abusive.  He left home the day he turned 21 and years later refused to attend his own father’s funeral. It was a strong statement. Some people interpret his unusual empathy with African slaves as deriving from his father abuse and exploitation of him.

Abraham Lincoln taught himself how to read and write and he borrowed books whenever he could.  After he left home, he wandered. He urbanized, he worked in different jobs. He kept studying and after three years he obtained his license to practice law. He was ambitious and determined to overcome the disadvantages he had grown up with. He joined a law firm and started a family, in Springfield, the state capital of Illinois.

I have to admit that this narrative resonates a bit with the upbringing of Nelson Mandela. The difference being that Abraham Lincoln, arguably America’s greatest president, was not born into a royal family with any privileges at tribal level. Lincoln was the quintessential self-made man.

During a war with a local Indian tribe, he enlisted in the militia. His troop of men chose him to be their leader, an honour which he later said meant more to him than any other.  Suddenly he has a taste of leadership and those militia skirmishes would be his only military exposure prior to taking on the mantle of Commander in Chief at the outset of the bloody American Civil War.

He dabbled in local politics, gaining some experience in debate and public speaking. His first great policy challenge was to debate that Democracy was incompatible with Slavery. This was because some of the new territories to the west of Illinois were debating whether to legalize Slavery or not.  He served two terms in the provincial legislature and term in Washington, as a legislature, for the Whig party.

Then he ran for the Illinois seat in the Senate, but lost. It looked like the end of his political career; like he would have to be content with his law career.

But two years later, he managed to win the nomination to run for president under the newly formed Republican party. He won on the third round, as a compromise candidate, in Chicago.

He was physically awkward, ugly and so rural that he was considered too informal. Even after he moved into the White House, he would receive people at times in his bare feet. But he was so affable and honest that ordinary people could relate to him.

His first presidential race was against three other candidates. Fortunately for him, they split the vote, to the extent that he won – even though he had only garnered 39 percent of the votes. This election was virtually a referendum on the expansion of Slavery into the new states in the West. His victory stopped that. But it riled up the southern states, whose economy was based on Slavery.

In 2019 in South Africa, we can expect the elections to basically be a kind of referendum on another question – land expropriation without compensation. The debate is raging about that policy issue now, just as the expansion of Slavery issue was a raging debate in the years before Lincoln was elected. 

His analysis was that Democracy was unfairly contrived because representation in Washington was disproportionate. This is because slaves were counted at three-fifths of a person (60 percent human) which gave the southern states an edge in the vote-counts that perpetuated the status quo.  As a lawyer and a politician, Lincoln took exception to this, much like the citizens of South Africa objected to the structural injustices of colonialism and apartheid, and to contrivances like a tricameral Parliament.

In those days it was a two-week train trip to travel from Illinois to Washington. While making his way to Washington, for his inauguration, Lincoln learned that one state had seceded from the Union. Others followed, and soon they joined in a Confederacy. To Lincoln, this was illegal and treacherous, as the Union had even preceded the Constitution.

South Africa needs to think through the “repercussions” of what will happen if land is expropriated without compensation, particularly if the Constitution is changed to streamline that.  For there could be knock-on effects – on the banks, on foreign investment, on race relations, and so forth.  At the root of this is the notion of private property, which to some citizens is sacrosanct. That is not my personal belief, for I believe that the land belongs to God. I therefore endorse proactive Land Reform, but always in the context of the Rule of Law, and in a way that bonds different races together – not one that shakes Non-racialism. There are such strategies, though some regard these as too “moderate” and not “radical” enough.

One can see an evolution in Lincoln’s thinking over time. The American Civil War began as an attempt to keep the Union intact, preventing any states from seceding – an act of treason. In fact, Slavery was still legal in four states of the Union which Lincoln could not dare to lose.  But in the early years of the war, it went badly for the North. They started with superior troop numbers, but these were depleted by very heavy casualties. Then Lincoln took a step that was not even considered at the beginning of the Civil War. He started to enlist black troops. He racially-integrated the army.

This inspired him to return to his arguments against the expansion of Slavery into new states in the West. That had not make him an “Abolitionist” back then, when he had been prepared just to contain it in the states where it already existed. But when he composed the Emancipation Declaration in the middle of the Civil War, it was a game-changer. He moved the goalposts from keeping the Union intact, to liberating slaves. This position was controversial even in the North. In fact, it was a white supremacist in the North who assassinated Lincoln, soon after the war was won.

Meanwhile, Lincoln managed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, freeing the slaves. He managed to win the war after four years of bloodshed on a scale never seen before. And he managed to win a second presidential election. Only to be assassinated soon thereafter.

Looking back, Lincoln was elected with very little education and almost no experience in the executive branch of government. Nor did he have any military experience to speak of. Yet he led the Union to victory on the battlefield, thereby keeping the Union intact. The republican experiment in America got a new lease on life. On the way, he freed the slaves, a moral and social victory on top of his military and political successes. And he was only 56 years old when he was assassinated by an extremist.

South Africa seems to want to elect leaders who are already in their sixties or seventies, even though life expectancy here is only 50 years for men. So many competent young cadres are being overlooked. It seems almost silly for Zimbabwe to elect a 75-year-old to start a new era.

Lincoln was thrifty and honest. These are not virtues that come to mind in South Africa, where leaders have two distinct vices – waste and corruption. Waste is not illegal, it is just immoral in a country with so much poverty. Corruption is illegal, and is a cancer that weakens the country’s economy and morale.

Above all, if Land Reform is an imperative – and I believe that it is – why can’t it evolve slowly like Lincoln’s thinking? Why do we suddenly need to amend the Constitution?  Certainly the Abolition movement was active, but Lincoln himself was no radical. He was a lawyer, a politician and ultimately a statesman. This takes patience and moves with glacial slowness at times. Slowly but surely. Sequentially. Cautiously.

“When you want to go fast, go alone. When you want to go far, go together.”

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.