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How to Be Abe Lincoln
Friday 13 October, 2023

How to Be Abe Lincoln

by Jonathan Shapiro (California and Oriel 1985)

Jonathan Shapiro is a former federal prosecutor, is an Emmy and Peabody Award winning TV writer, and the author of the new book "How to Be Abe Lincoln: Seven Steps to Leading a Legendary Life".

I wrote How To Be Abe Lincoln: Seven Steps Toward a Leading a Legendary Life  because I got tired of hearing good people say bad things about the state of our Union.

More than at any time other than Lincoln’s, we need our greatest storyteller, lawyer, and President to show us how to overcome the collective cussedness that always lurks in the complex hearts and minds of Americans.

This not an academic book. It is a useful one. Let the professors work their side of the street, engaging in Lincoln exegesis. I am interested in laying out the seven practical steps that made Lincoln who he was.

These steps do not require superhuman strength. They require a willingness to take them, and the discipline to stay with them when the going gets tough. With 60,000 books already published about the man, any new one ought to provide something useful.

The steps only seem simple until you try to take them. In order to be Lincoln, you need to learn to:

  • Laugh at yourself and with others to build community.
  • Improve yourself with consistent and joyful effort.
  • Navigate your course through the sacred, hard won skill required of a       Mississippi flatboat pilot.
  • Collaborate with the most difficult of personalities.
  • Object when failing to do so would cause you moral injury.
  • Love deeply in a mature way, knowing that love is a choice.
  • Now take action, not just think about it.

That the first letter of each step spells out Lincoln is only silly to those who fail to appreciate just how silly Lincoln chose to be to win others to his side, to build community, and to establish his own reputation, ethos, and brand. Among other props, he carried a large green umbrella with his name stitched on it in order to advertise. He appreciated any pedagogical tool that taught the public who he was and what he stood for. He also loved wordplay, acrostics, and puns. No one is perfect.

A life-long admirer of Lincoln (our oldest son is named for him), I cannot think of a more relevant role-model for this moment. In a post-truth world where the term “my truth” is said without irony, Lincoln reminds us that to believe in anything that isn’t based on a fact is a kind of sin.

His ability to practice self-deprecating humor as a kind of religion reminds us that humility and empathy for others is essential to a civil society.

As a young man, Lincoln was a flatboat pilot, who learned that journeys require an understanding of where we are and where we want to go. Can anyone seriously think our Congressional leaders have our nation’s future in mind? If so, how are their policies seeking to get us there?

Though a loner by nature, Lincoln made himself into a productive collaborator who could work with the most difficult people. He did it through mindful listening, the application of reason, and compromise. A peaceful man who waged the bloodiest war in our history because he had to, Lincoln knew that when we fail to object to moral wrong, we deserve the moral injury we suffer. Love, one contemporary said, was the guiding force of Lincoln’s life. At a time when hate seems to be the currency of the realm, love for our fellow Americans must become our guiding principle.

And we must do it now. Lincoln said we cannot evade the responsibility of tomorrow by ignoring it today. It’s time to grow up.

Last week, I gave a presentation to the attorneys of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C.. Graduates of the nation’s finest law schools, former judicial clerks, and the highest paid law firms, they gave up enormous opportunities to enrich themselves for the sole purpose of public service. It was inspiring to see the better angels of the American nature still exists in the federal government. Their reward, and that of tens of thousands of other committed, hard-working government employees will be getting laid off in less than 45 days. Lincoln managed to keep the federal government open throughout his Administration even though half the country took up arms to against it. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

We can change things. But only when we are willing to walk in the footsteps of those who actually, truly made America great.