by Donovan Craig
“The Prime Condition of the Free Man is Strength.” Rolland
When he was young, he was “ as strong as three or four men put together”; lifting Old Mrs. Robinson’s Chicken Coup and moving it across her yard, or carrying 600 pounds of logs by himself, 1,000 pounds of rocks, chopping down trees with just a few strokes of the ax, picking up a full barrel of whiskey up and taking a swig just to show he could do it. He tossed the three robbers that tried to waylay his flat-bottomed boat into the great Mississippi single-handed.
His physical toughness reinforced the power of his mind when he worked those long, hard hours over the law and then for that fateful five years, the horrendous civil war, which was as much a product of his single will as something like that can be.
He knew well the inglorious drudgery that goes into understanding a matter; “taking hold of it” as he called it; breaking it down into understandable pieces, being indomitable in the face of confusion and error, slowly, diligent, creating mastery through memory and revision. “ I am slow to learn and slow to forget,” he admitted, but then, with a workman’s pride “ my mind is like a piece of steel very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after it gets they’re to rub out.” He knew there was as much humility in mental labor as there is in the hard drudgery of the lumberyard and farmhouse. He was proof of the swordsman Musashi’s maxim, that a man knows a thousand things who knows one well.
His humility, being authentic, came from a place of power. From the time he was 14 or 15 years old he was always the biggest, strongest, smartest, most capable man in any room he was in but who went to greater pains to put people at ease? Machiavelli advised that to lead men put your trust in fear and cunning but this won’t work in a democracy, not in the United States of America, where servility and station are obnoxious to the common man.
He used every man to his best purpose, friends and enemies alike. His cabinet was a viper’s pit, but a potent one for the cause of the Union. His generals for the most part worse than useless until Grant bubbled up from the carnage. His mind moved from the grand historic struggle before him to the minute details of daily business dozens of times every day. His was a genius not so much of leadership as that of administration and of taking pains.
His mind grappled with and subdued one the two most intractable problems of world history; Slavery and the viability of Democracy. His overriding ideal was that of self-government and then that all men should be free. A man’s labor he knew is all that he really owns and it is the path to self-betterment for societies and individuals. Who better than former rail-splitter from Kentucky woods to defend this manly principle?
Once the slaves in America were free and the world looked to him as the great emancipator he took interest in the Serfs of Russia, asking the Honorable Bayard Taylor to publish a lecture on the subject. Karl Marx, while desperately pondering the workhouses of England and with keen insight thought him the greatest man alive and a more potent historic force than even Napoleon.