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In fact, it was a subtlety of perception about what he needed, and a deep emotional strength, that lay behind Lincoln's move. As his secretary, John Nicolay, later wrote, Lincoln's "first decision was one of great courage and self-reliance." A less confident man might have surrounded himself with personal supporters who would never question his authority. Later Lincoln was asked why had chosen his chief rivals for his official family, knowing each of them was still smarting from his loss. Lincoln's answer was simple and shrewd: "We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their service."
The decision to appoint his political enemies to his Cabinet was perhaps the most obvious example of his emotional strength. But there were many others, all of which highlighted a different aspect of it.
Perhaps the most important of his emotional abilities was empathy--the gift of putting himself in the place of others, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires. Even as a child, he was uncommonly tender-hearted. He once stopped and tracked back half a mile to rescue a pig caught in a mire--not because he loved the pig, recollected a friend, "just to take a pain out of his own mind." As a young member of the state legislature, he was known for his insight into the opposition's strategy. Even after leaving the body, he would be called upon by his Whig colleagues not only to predict the moves that their Democratic opponents were likely to take, but to spell out the countermeasures needed to block them.
Unusual among antislavery orators in the 1850s, Lincoln sought to comprehend the Southerners' position through empathy rather than castigate slave owners as corrupt and un-Christian men. He argued, "They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up." It was useless, he explained in another address, to employ "thundering tones of anathema and denunciation," for denunciation would be met by denunciation, "anathema with anathema."
Far better, he believed, to reach into the heart of one's opponents--which, of course, he memorably did in his second Inaugural when he suggested that the sin of slavery was shared by North and South. "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other ... let us judge not that we be not judged." In the largest sense, Lincoln's empathy allowed him to absorb the sorrows and hopes of his countrymen, to sense their shifting moods so he could shape and mold their opinion with the right words and the right deeds at the right time.