Modern-day leaders could learn a lot from our 16th president
Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we mark this holiday weekend, had less leadership experience than almost any earlier president. George Washington and Andrew Jackson had been generals, several other presidents had been governors, and all the Southerners had owned plantations. They had run organizations and managed men. President Lincoln, by contrast, was a former state legislator, a one-term congressman and the senior partner of a two-man law firm; he kept his most important papers filed away in his hat.
And yet Lincoln filled the office of president so effectively that he regularly tops historians’ rankings of great presidents.
It helped, of course, that he was one of the greatest writers in the American canon—certainly the greatest ever to reach the White House (Jefferson at his best could be equally good, but his range was narrower). Leaving aside such extraordinary talents, which of Lincoln’s principles of action can guide his successors?
Looking to the Past: An 1860 portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy. The Granger Collection
Cite precedent. Lincoln the lawyer was ever mindful of precedents, while Lincoln the unhappy son who never bonded with his hard-driving, un-bookish father was always looking for paternal surrogates. He found both precedents and men he could look up to in America’s founding fathers.
Lincoln’s mature career—from the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854 until his death in 1865—was, among other things, a long effort to show that his positions on the issue of slavery were those of the founders. (Lincoln wanted slavery contained and ultimately extinguished; so, he said, did they.) He hammered away at this theme in his Peoria speech in 1854, the three-hour-long oration that first laid out his ideas; he returned to it repeatedly in his 1858 debates with the Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas ; and he spent half the Cooper Union Address, his New York City command performance in 1860, showing that “our fathers, who framed the government under which we live,” agreed with him. “As those fathers marked [slavery], let it be again marked,” he said, “as an evil not to be extended.”
Lincoln wanted to wrap himself in the founders’ aura—gilt by association—and he believed that they had been right about human nature, liberty and equality. He wanted to be on their side, and he wanted them on his.
Make your case. The histories of kingdoms and empires are often court histories—who whispered what to whom. So, dismayingly, is much modern political reporting: Who got to the chief of staff? How did the senator learn about this? If Saint-Simon, the chronicler of the Sun King’s Versailles, were alive today, he would have a column or a talk show.
Lincoln could play inside baseball, making deals and manipulating colleagues, when he had to. But he understood that democracies are ultimately ruled not by such little maneuvers but by the people. “Public opinion in this country,” he said bluntly in 1859, “is everything.” That means that everything depends on wooing, shaping and educating public opinion. That, in turn, requires leaders to put themselves out there. It helps, of course, if their arguments are clear and their programs sensible. But even the most brilliant philosopher statesman has to make his case.
Humor helps. Lincoln had an immense stock of jokes and stories, some of them off-color. He often used them to distract people he knew he couldn’t immediately satisfy. Leonard Swett, one of his Illinois cronies, recalled him receiving visitors in Springfield, Illinois, after he had won the Republican nomination in 1860: “He told them all a story, said nothing, and sent them away.”
But Lincoln’s humor worked at a deeper level to keep everything in proportion. One of his favorite jokes—his last law partner, William Herndon, said he heard Lincoln tell it “often and often”—was about a bold, clever fellow who breaks wind while carving a turkey at a party “so that all the people heard it distinctly.” The hero of the joke manages to get the turkey carved in the end.
But the ludicrous situation, with its vulgar twist, served to remind Lincoln and his auditors that life is full of mishaps and (even worse) embarrassments. No one should be surprised, aggrieved or affronted by this; one must simply carry on, jauntily if possible. This is an important lesson for the many frustrations and crises of politics.
Principles first.Lincoln grew up in a major political party that had a shorter life span than he had. The Whig Party came together in the early 1830s to combat Andrew Jackson, the man who had transformed the Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison into the Democratic Party of today. Jackson had a personality—combative, tempestuous—but he also had principles: small government, sticking up for the common man (the latter continues to be a watchword for today’s Democrats).
The Whigs had vivid leaders of their own— Henry Clay and Daniel Webster —and principles too: They wanted a central bank, protective tariffs and economic development. But time was not kind to the Whigs or their principles. Clay himself cut tariffs after the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, and the charter of the Second Bank of the United States expired in 1836, never to be renewed. The Whigs were reduced to trying to win presidential elections by running war heroes. Two of them— William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor —won, in 1840 and 1848. But the third, Winfield Scott, was crushed in 1852. The Whig Party was dead on its feet.
But a new issue was stirring. John Stuart, a former Whig congressman who had been Lincoln’s first law partner and mentor, said to him one day, “Lincoln, the time is coming when we shall have to be all either Abolitionists or Democrats.” “My mind is made up,” Lincoln answered, “for I believe the slavery question can never be successfully compromised.”
Lincoln had been in one party whose principles had leached out of it. He would never be in that position again. In 1860, he ended the Cooper Union Address with this ringing appeal to his fellow Republicans: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Be inclusive. Principles are not disembodied things; they require men who will make them real in this world. Lincoln had a wide embrace for allies.
This was partly a necessity of a new party. The Republican Party, which coalesced in 1854-56, included longtime abolitionists, Whigs, Democrats and Know Nothings (who disliked slavery but disliked immigrants only slightly less). Lincoln worked with men who possessed all these back-stories. He also worked with men of different temperaments. His secretary of state, William H. Seward, was genial and good-humored. His treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, was sharp-elbowed and forever submitting his resignation. His first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, was ethically challenged (Lincoln saved him from a congressional investigation).
Doris Kearns Goodwin, surveying Lincoln’s cabinet, coined the term “Team of Rivals.” It might be better to say that Lincoln ignored the rivalries to focus on whatever he could have in common with these often talented, always contentious men. Lincoln expressed his rule of thumb in his Peoria speech in 1854: “Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong.”
Look to the past, speak out, laugh, stand firm and stand together. What worked for Lincoln might work for you.
Mr. Brookhiser is the author of “James Madison” (Basic Books) and “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington” (Free Press).