Abraham Lincoln Genius of Labor

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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 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, successful outcome of 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, diligently, manufacturing knowledge 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 there 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 thing 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. Then Grant bubbled up from the carnage. His mind moved from the grand 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 of administration and of taking pains.

His mind grappled with and subdued two of the most intractable problems of world history; Slavery and the viability of Democracy. His overriding ideal was that of self-government and then, after that, that all men should be free. A man’s labor he knew is all that he really owns and it’s the path to self-betterment for societies and individuals. Who better than a former rail-splitter from the 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.

Railsplitter Courtesy Library of Congress

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Muhammad Ali 1942-2016

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by Donovan Craig

The closest he came to getting beat during his prime was that  left hook at the end of the fourth in his  first match with Henry Cooper. It was one of the only times he ever seemed really dazed. His best performance was probably against Cleveland Williams. That one was a ballet of violence. The pinnacle of his long career in Boxing was surely the win over George  Foreman in Zaire. So harrowing a contest was his win over Frazier in Manila that it’s exhausting just to watch. He’ll be forever linked with “Smokin” Joe but  Norton did better against him more consistently. He foreshadowed Mixed Martial Arts by 20 years with that odd fiasco with Inoki in Japan and he tamed the dreadful Liston outside the ring and won both their fights well before they started.

He was not the single best all around prizefighter that ever lived. That title goes to Sugar Ray Robinson. Nor was he was the most dominant or longest reigning Heavyweight Champion. That would be Joe Louis. On his best night could he have beaten any Heavyweight that ever lived over 15 rounds? Probably; but it’s also very possible that a  modern day Goliath, a Lennox Lewis for instance, or one of the Klitschko Brothers, would have given him fits. If he did beat them, he’d have done it over a long and grueling fight, taking them out to the “deep water”, as he called it, where his endurance, will and trickery would have decided things.

His hand speed was excellent but Patterson in youth might have been as fast. It was his legs; his movement and defensive reflexes that were unique for a man his size. He’d hit you a million times in a fight but always to the head. He made his living with the jab and straight right. He had the best chin of any Heavyweight Champ that I know of.  Marciano might be in the running but the “The Rock” never got hit by a fighter anywhere near as big and strong as some of the monsters Ali tamed. So, it’s hard to say.

The tales of his exploits outside the ring read like the adventures of a mythic hero, a saint, or perhaps a benevolent trickster god, the kind that used to go around in disguise looking for opportunities to help people out. There was the time he once saw a man about to kill himself by jumping out a window and he went up to there and talked him down,  or the time when, on the spur of the moment, he went into a bona fide leper colony and embraced and comforted the sick.  While training in Zaire, he ran unprotected through the deadly streets with huge crowds collecting in his wake, joyous to be doing roadwork with their Champion. He always said he wanted to hitchhike across the United States with no money in his pocket, knocking on doors at the end of the day, asking to stay the night and share a meal, depending on his fame and the goodwill of his fellow man to make it across. He’d certainly have done it.  He could have gone around the world that way.

He was always authentic even when he was doing his act. People forever wanted more of him.  He went silent as the rest of us started making noise with our cell phones and computers but he didn’t disappear completely. In one last long act of misdirection something twinkled inside the shell.

He outlived many of his contemporaries in sport and popular consciousness; Frazier and Norton, Dundee and Bundini Brown, Mailer and Plimpton, and of course, his TV soul mate, Howard Cosell. His most heated rivals became his friends and, in the end, the culture he’d divided coalesced around him; the attractive power of a righteous man.  Defined by his titanic battles and  willingness to resist, he died without enemies.

He renews  the vigor of the word “Hero” and in him the term remembers its  power. An athletic and communicative artist, he was a miraculous confluence of talent, will and circumstance. He was a virtuous circle of genius and luck. The World is little less for him not being in it and the Human Race a shave less potent.  Such was the man; Muhammad Ali.

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