Lincoln 1-The River

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Leadership Principle: Follow through and execute

In March, the Sangamon River flows a cold and circuitous route of 246 miles through birch lined banks dusted with frosted silver between Peoria and Springfield Illinois. In that wintery month of 1832, the steamer, christened the Talisman waited in the shoals of the river. The smoke from its smouldering coal fires stretched a wispy trail over the tops of the trees into a vast emptiness of arboreal forest as it waited for its route to be cleared of the clutter of trees by toiling axe men. The progress for the steamer was slowed as the Sangamon River is notoriously low – especially during the contraction of winter with sand forks and ice flows that stretch and bar the negotiation of the Talisman’s inaugural journey. The intrepid planners behind this winter trip aim to link the towns of Cincinnati Ohio and Springfield Illinois. This would be the first steam boat ever to achieve the feat. The impediments, hardened by the long winter months, stubbornly resist the thudding blows of the axe and exact a punishing jolt to the men’s arms and bones. But clearing the water route is of urgency to the young Abraham Lincoln. He knows the navigation of this river system offers the best hope of wresting this wilderness frontier from the clutches of poverty and the perceived dangers of the Sauk and Meskwaki Indian tribes. And added to the determination, is his own fervent desire to live up to the esteem of the townsfolk assembling upstream in Springfield to celebrate the much anticipated arrival of the Talisman.

The image of the Abe Lincoln wading the slurry ice water to chop a passage for this ship of progress casts a glimmer of illumination on the determination of this young man to clear the way for progress, industry, and the elevation of himself and those in his community up from the confines of what was otherwise a backwater. It is a breathtaking illustration of his natural endowment for leadership – physically hurling his self into the cold of a February river bank to clear a route for what at that moment was the last best hope for his adopted town of New Salem. It was an example of the frontier experience that would weave into his later political life – a rich trove of stories and experiences of thwarted aspirations to raise one’s self up from the oblivion which the Frontier represented. His was a life on the frontier which came to serve as a powerful symbol of a nation’s aspirations to overcome, to discover one’s self and beat back the darkness of what was otherwise then a land laden with the dangers of the untamed wild, the callous cold, and the marauding indian tribes who would in just two years be at war with the people of this frontier. Through his own authentic participation in the struggles of his community, Lincoln’s experience reflected this larger symbolic personal and national aspiration that tapped a common chord and propelled him to lead.