The Quest for Magnanimity

Having found our quest, how should we complete it? What happens if challenges or setbacks obscure our journey? 

If our objectives are noble and our motives pure, we move forward in tranquility and firmness. Perhaps the highest office we will ever hold is that of citizens. It is an office we exercise each year as we vote. It is our birthright and duty to execute. 

I am reminded of some key things that happened during perhaps the darkest moments in our history; things that demonstrated resolve summarized in this word: magnanimity. Magnanimity comes from the Latin word magnanimitas and the Greek mega-lopsuchia which means “great of soul.” Aristotle called it “the crowning virtue.”

Magnanimity is defined as the greatness of the mind. Magnanimity is the elevation or dignity of the soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence. Magnanimity makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest, and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects. (Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828)

Magnanimity in History

The quest Abraham Lincoln undertook was magnanimous indeed. How could he preserve the union and eliminate slavery? Even his name Abraham embodies fatherhood of many. 

It was the fall of 1863. The decisive battle of Gettysburg occurred in early July and the tide had turned to victory for the Union forces on July 4, 1863. Lincoln reviewed the year and pondered the blessings that had occurred. He appealed to the “better angels” of human nature, seeking magnanimous actions of others that he felt had originated from God. Here are portions of his Proclamation of Thanksgiving establishing this holiday. 

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens  in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

As Lincoln exercised magnanimity in victory, he was poised to create peace that made  goodwill. On Palm Sunday 1865, the civil war ended. What terms would he offer these fellow countrymen who had stirred the hostilities and caused the deaths of over 600,000 people?  General Grant was given directions from Abraham Lincoln to allow the confederates to return to their homes with malice towards none and goodwill towards all. Magnanimity elevates itself above revenge and seeks healing. This communication below is probably the most simple and peaceful surrender ever executed.

Appomattox Court-House, Virginia, April 9, 1865.

GENERAL: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.

Here was Lee’s reply.  

 Head-Quarters, Army of Northern Virginia, April 9, 1865

GENERAL: I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th instant, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.

R. E. Lee, General.

As we engage in our quest, the virtue of magnanimity allows us to build an outcome that is greater than self.

Image attribution: Thomas Nast, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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