William Herndon, Lincoln’s last law partner, says in Herndon’s Lincoln, “the truth about Mr. Lincoln is that he read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America.” Repeating it, he adds, “if not in the world.” He credits Lincoln with possessing “originality and power of thought in an eminent degree. Besides his well-established reputation for caution, he was concentrated in his thoughts and had great continuity of reflection.”
As I think of long-headed, calculating Mr. Lincoln, reading the newspapers, talking extensively with his fellow lawyers and judges and politicians (what we today call the courthouse crowd), I see a man thoroughly immersed in the intellectual and emotional currents of his day. Immersed, but not submerged.
He read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America, Herndon said. In other words, he was concentrated. Suppose that Mr. Lincoln had had the Internet, and television, and talk radio, and suppose that he had had continual deadlines and the million other distractions that tempt us from our center. Would it not have served to lessen that immense concentration, to make him in effect a shallower person? And of course the point is — isn’t the temptation to such distraction one of the chief difficulties of our time?
Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary man, and one function of extraordinary men is that they provide us with models to emulate. Emulation is not imitation. We couldn’t live the life that he lived, even if we wished to. But we can adapt our lives to encourage qualities similar to those we admire. Concentrated in his thoughts, with great continuity of reflection. It might be worth our time to consider how we would need to rearrange our lives in order to encourage those same traits.