I’m approaching 200 pages of my first Lincoln book of two this winter, and I came across an incredible story. On February 8, 1855, Lincoln was running to be a senator of Illinios. He needed 51 votes to win. This was when senators were chosen by the politicians themselves instead of the vote of the people. At one point in the voting, Lincoln had 47 votes acquired, only 4 short of victory. The senators basically boiled down to three groups: the Whigs (which represented the 47 votes for Lincoln), the “Douglas Democrats” (which were against him by cause and by party so were not voting for him at all), and the “anti-Nebraska Democrats” (who sided with Lincoln’s cause but were against him by party status). His fate lay in the hands of 4 senators from this last party who could easily cross party lines for a vote to include him based on their shared stance against slavery. But ultimately, even though it would hurt their cause, they decided that they couldn’t vote for a non-democrat because “having been elected as Democrats…they could not sustain themselves at home.” Basically, it would hurt their career to help their cause. So they did what most of us would do.
This is where the story would normally end. Except, that Lincoln was not a normal leader. “Lincoln concluded that unless his supporters shifted to Trumbull [a senator prospect who was an anti-Nebraska democrat: same cause as Lincoln but different party], the Douglas Democrats…would choose the next senator.” Lincoln told the 47 senators that promised him a vote to switch parties and vote for Trumbull since he shared Lincoln’s view on slavery, even though he was a democrat. This move would guarantee that a senator would be elected who agreed with their cause. If Lincoln didn’t act this way, he told his floor manager that “you will lose both Trumbull and myself and I think the cause in this case is to be preferred to men.”
And so, Lincoln didn’t get elected to the senate. He decided to propel his cause instead of his career. So much so that he “deliberately showed up at Trumbull’s victory party, with a smile on his face and a warm handshake for the victor.” And yet it is moments like these that defined Lincoln and ultimately pushed him toward the presidency of the United States. “While Seward and Chase [Lincoln’s later presidential rivals] would lose friends in victory… Lincoln, in defeat, gained friends.”
A story like this causes you to reflect. What do we choose when we are put into this same situation? Is our career, or ambition in general, more important than our cause? Or, do we believe in our cause so passionately that we will advance it, even if it costs us personally? Whatever your cause may be, I hope that every leader has found something that they can support above themselves and that when the opportunity presents itself, we will choose the cause over the man.