I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.
Abraham Lincoln wrote the above quote as part of a long letter to Albert Hodges on April 4, 1864. He was explaining his decision-making on Emancipation for publication in Hodges’s Kentucky newspaper, the Frankfort Commonwealth. For those who know history, Kentucky was one of four “border states” that, although slave states, remained in the Union during the Civil War. Hodges had been critical of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; Lincoln’s letter explained in great detail the series of decisions he made in his efforts to save the Union, including those specifically related to the slavery question. It remains one of the most articulate defenses of executive action ever written.
Oddly, while Lincoln claims to have been controlled by events, his letter suggests he made a series of well-considered decisions influenced by, but also influencing, those events.
It reminds me of a quote by another famous public figure, Kurt Vonnegut, from his science fiction novel, The Sirens of Titan:
I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.
The book delves into issues of free will, that is, the ability to control ones own life and ones own decision making. As the book unfolds, it becomes less and less clear how much we control our own lives. Conversely, much of what seems out of our control results from the decisions we indeed make.
Lincoln advocated for a government that would “elevate the condition of men” and clear paths to “afford all…a fair chance, in the race of life.” In other words, the opportunity to control our own path forward, to make ones own decisions.
Complete control of our lives is an illusion in the sense that what others do often influences what we can do, or will choose to do. Events beyond our control happen, and yet we generally can choose how we react to those events. Lincoln reacted to the war and slavery in ways that others on both ends of the political spectrum disagreed, but he made those decisions with the end result in mind – saving America from tearing itself apart. While he may not have completely controlled all events, he did strongly influence them. That is a lesson all of us should learn.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.