What would Lincoln do now?

Abraham Lincoln, George Peter Alexander Healy, 1869. Hangs in the State Dining Room, White House in Washington, DC.

Lincoln, the American icon, has become the modern go-to guy for advice in times of crisis. His leadership in the heat of human history came 160 years ago, responding calmly in desperate times impresses us now. How did he prepare himself and can we see hints as to how he would respond today? While his 19th century jokes might be dated, could we gain from his humor and logical mind?  

  1. Lincoln didn’t just depend on the existing gray matter between his ears. He read voraciously—the law, the Bible, Shakespeare, military strategy (West Point texts), and literature. In what spare time he had, Lincoln spent the first year and a half of the Civil War pouring over books he’d asked the Library of Congress to send to the White House–texts West Point used to prepare its officers. Lincoln had scant experience in the brief Blackhawk War and wanted to be able to quiz military officers about battle strategy. Later he went on the battlefield — managing by walking around— taking at least five trips to visit his generals, usually when he wanted to see for himself. He knew the questions he needed to ask and when to let General Grant have at it himself. Today Lincoln would have a fleet of military officers and State Department officials to answer his questions, but likely he would take time to determine which ones were there for their country and which ones were there for themselves.
  2. While he never was elected to the Senate, his debating ability against Senator Stephen Douglas gave him national visibility that thrust him into the 1860 Presidential campaign. The thought that went into these debates helped prepare Lincoln for a national campaign, though in 1860 surrogates toured the country on behalf of the candidate, not the politician himself. Lincoln’s experience in the Illinois statehouse, one-term in Congress, multiple political campaigns, and five years’ as President provided ample opportunity to slip into tight spots and reason his way out. A pragmatic politician, he appreciated the need to solve problems more rapidly than prior generations.
  3. He gathered around him a “Team of Rivals, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin termed them, a group of respected men, some who had competed against him and each other for the Presidency, including Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Simon P. Chase. Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s biopic, shows how these men disagreed angrily with him. Lincoln listened and realized he wasn’t always right.  But when Lincoln knew he was right, he moved.
  4. In the case of General McClellan, for political reasons more than military, it was a slow process. In August 1862, Lincoln realized war could not be won without radical change in his military leadership. He found himself between a rock and a hard spot with General McClellan, who ingratiated himself with his troops, believing himself to be superior to the President.
  5. For a glimpse of the political environment at the time, we have the first-hand account of Capt. Charles Francis Adams Jr., grandson and great grandson of presidents and son of current minister to Britain, saw his 1st Massachusetts’ Cavalry moved from South Carolina to Washington. This to counter the Union’s losses in the Peninsula Campaign due in part to McClellan’s failure to act swiftly. Adams found in the Capital City an “atmosphere of treason, jealousy, and dissension” (more than usual) with his main concern—divisions of the officers of the Army of the Potomac and Lincoln’s Administration.

Lincoln realized he needed a larger and more energetic military offensive in order to win the war. He understood slavery was the base of Southern political and economic strength and would need to be weakened or destroyed in order to preserve the Union. Yanking the popular Democrat McClelland out-right from his position would create too much chaos within and without the military, so Lincoln did it piecemeal as McClellan began to lose a grip on reality. McClellan wrote to his wife: ”I have no choice–the people call upon me to save the country and I cannot respect anything that gets in the way.” McClellan charged the “dolts in Washington” were “bent on my destruction.” He did not reinforce General Polk when ordered, but demanded “full and entire control” and waited to save his own troops to defend Washington, then leaked to the press a demand that Secretary of War Stanton, an arch rival, be removed to provide McClellan the control he craved.

Patience: On July 2, 1862 Lincoln wrote McClellan if he could not operate offensively, then “Save the Army—first, where you are.” Lincoln played the game of slow go and missed opportunities wishing not to “estrange the affections of the Democratic party,” and “not wanting to make McClellan a martyr.” Lincoln went up to meet McClellan after Antietam in an attempt to get the General to move. But it was 19 days before the General got a single man over the river and nine more days to get his entire army across. Finally, Lincoln devised a test: if McClellan let General Lee get away once again, Lincoln would remove him, and he did in November.

6. Lincoln chose his secretaries well, working them seven days a week. Twenty-something Journalist John Nicolay and lawyer John Hay had great access to the President, living down the hall from the Lincolns. They worked as he did–14-hour days, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year—no vacations (sometimes the duo would sub for each other for a week during the summer to vacation with sweethearts) , but Lincoln trudged on—no leisure, no golf. Perhaps a little physical diversion might have helped lift Lincoln’s melancholy). He would ride his horse alone out to the Old Soldier’s Home north of the White House, until the generals and Mrs. Lee realized the security risk.

Earlier in the war, Lincoln told Hay that the “central idea of the war” was to prove “popular government was not an absurdity.” (Hay Diary, Burlingame and Ettinger, eds., 20, (entry for 7 May 1861) Lincoln’s philosophy: the war would midwife a “new birth of freedom” by liberating slaves and thus moving the country closer to realizing the Founders’ vision of equality (a debate over exactly what the Founder’s vision truly was may continue to eternity–but Lincoln believed the nation could not survive long-term by stifling the freedom of four million people). Lincoln aimed the Gettysburg Address at common people, using a few (263) well-chosen, pithy, simple words. Due to its brevity, many newspapers ran the speech on the front page.

5. Instead of letting a general or a civilian get both barrels of his wrath, Lincoln delivered a slab of humor more cutting than rage. General John Fremont received such a lashing in May 1862 when he moved his troops off his assigned spot in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Fremont decided to go relieve General Banks. Lincoln’s response: “There are three kinds of animals: there is a horse & mule & a jackass. A horse when he is broken will obey the reins easily, a mule is hard to guide but still you can make him go rightly. But a jackass you can’t guide at all!” Some suggested the President should criticize Fremont in the press. Lincoln said he was far too busy to write for the newspapers (having no digital options, but if he did might find them a serious time-drain as well). This in an era before the media became the fulcrum launching divergent opinions out to the public.

6. Lincoln was a politician, but he lost his Congressional seat based on principle. In 1847 in his only term in Congress, Lincoln fearlessly attacked American intervention in the affairs of Mexico, as a “war of conquest brought into existence to catch votes.” He rationed if Mexico could be fair game, how about Canada next? He went with George Washington’s advice on foreign entanglements–don’t. Lincoln questioned President Polk’s insistence that the Mexican conflict began when Mexican soldiers “invaded the territory of the State of Texas striking the first blow and shedding the blood of our citizens on our own soil.” Shortly Lincoln issued eight legalistic interrogatories (those questions again), which became known as the “spot resolutions,” outlining his reasoning.

Lincoln cinched a noose around his Congressional future when he voted for the amendment asserting that the Mexican War has been “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President.” Then he buried his political dreams for the decade when he took the floor of the House on January 9, 1848 to deliver an hour-long speech saying he could have remained quiet IF the President had not stated that the Mexican Government was solely responsible for the war.

Lincoln learned that when you have 1,000 troops from your Congressional District fighting in Mexico, their relatives and friends, and friends of friends don’t take kindly to disparaging comments about that war. The tremendous lands (much of the current U.S. from Texas west to California) and resources Polk and the nation acquired from Mexico at the war’s end, stimulated western expansion, but heightened North-South tensions about the future of slavery in new territories.

7. The Commander-in-chief knew the buck stopped at his desk. Lincoln honed his thought process over time: years spent reading the law, defending hundreds of clients in court, and listening to his constituents’ concerns, helped him sort through all the options, like a modern computer. The American people admire a chieftain who can command their allegiance, unite the sections, and arouse them with a challenge that will appeal to their better selves, like Lincoln–Thomas A. Bailey, a historian who focused on the presidents. He exhibited three attributes that leaders develop in order to gain the respect and full support of their nation: patience, kindness, and forgiveness.

8. Unlike many politicians and mortals, he didn’t bear grudges–had no time for them. Missourian Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s Postmaster General, had written to General John Fremont thinking he had a friendly audience when he criticized Lincoln and his Whig policies as feeble. Fremont, beholding to the Blair family for his military rise, yet he bowed to his desire for press and leaked the letter. Blair went to the President, embarrassed, and admitted his foolishness. Lincoln replied: “Forget it and never mention or think about it again.” To save Blair further anxiety, Lincoln suggested Blair was really criticizing the aging General Winfield Scott but “he has done his country a noble service & it was natural to trust him–but his vigor is past.”

9. He didn’t forget a promise. Lincoln didn’t know he wrote his own death sentence when he went out on the White House porch on April 11, 1865 to address Washingtonians. He talked about the future after the surrender at Appomattox. Earlier he’d spoken with Frederick Douglass about extending the vote to black men who had fought for the Union and believed the time had come. The idea so enraged John Wilkes Booth, who lurked in the shadows on the edge of the crowd, that he raised the ante on Lincoln. Instead of kidnapping him as planned, he and his band of Confederate sympathizers would kill the President, thinking it would end talk of negro suffrage.

10. Finally, Lincoln as a lawyer studied the Constitution throughout his career and was well-versed on the details first established by the Founding Fathers. He built upon that knowledge during his five years as President. He took the job and the Constitution seriously and could not imagine needing to tutor a politician about its finer points, although during the Senate Campaign Debates with William Douglas cocerning slavery, he did just that.

During the Civil War some of Lincoln’s detractors pointed to his action to suspend the writ of habeas corpus as a blemish on his record. This writ allowed the government to arrest and detain civilians without charges. It empowered the Union military to arrest civilians who were guilty of disloyal practice. dHe ordered a blockade of Southern ports, and established military tribunals to try civilians in occupied or contested areas, without Congressional approval (though Congress did approve retroactively.

The man who tested the write was a Pro-Confederate John Merryman, a wealthy Marylander serving as a lieutenant in a pro-secessionist cavalry, who’d helped cut telebraph wires, burned bridges to prevent Northern troops from flowing down to defend Washington, and who prepared men to serve in the Confederate army. Merryman sued for his freedom, arguing the writ was illegal.

Lincoln drew his authority during the Civil War under Article 1 of the Constitution. Already members of the 1st Massachusetts Division and a dozen civilians had been killed in Maryland as they struggled at the railroad station with Confederate sympathizers.

On July 4, 1861, Lincoln sent a message to Congress: “The whole of the leaws which I was sworn to take care that they be faithfully executed, were being resisted, and failing to be executed, in nearly one third of the states. Must I have allowed them to finally fail of execution, even had it been perfectly clear that by the use of the means necessary to their execution, some single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizens liberty, that practically, it relieves more of the guilty, than the innocent, should, to a very limitee extent, be violated? . . . I should consider my official oath broken if I should allow the government to be overthrown, when I might think that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it.

In my opinion, I violated no law. This provision. . .may be suspected when, in the cases of rebellion, or invasion, the public safety does require it.” The Constitution is silent as to which (President or Congress) is to exercise the power. Lincoln did not believe the danger was to run its course while the Congress’s gathering could be prevented by the rebellion.

Attorney General Bates: I . . . declare the opinion that the President has lawful power to suspend the privilege of person’s arrested under such circumstances, for he is charged by the Constitution with the ‘public safety,’ and he is the sole judge of the emergency which requires his prompt action. (Bates to Lincoln, Washington, 5 July 1861, OR, III, 2:28.)

Lincoln read the founding document as being broadly constructed, like Alexander Hamilton, flexible, but not infinitely malleable. Earlier in his career, Lincoln wrote:

“Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to prosperity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular the law of the country and never to tolerate their violation by others.”

Lincoln had a simplicity about him that might seem out of step with these times. But he adhered to basic principles of fair play, humor instead of anger, and hard work, (not allowing himself leisure, except for attending the theater, which we came to regret in April 1865). Old style, perhaps, and sticking to one’s principles can indeed get you fired in politics today, but down the long road, it brought Lincoln to the White House and returned a country from the brink. He never had the temptation to send messages digitally, though Nicolay or Hay’s would have had their fingers at the wheel if he did.

1 Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press), Vol.1. p. 216

3. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, (New York: Simon & SAchuster), p. 114

“Washington in Disarray,” Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861-1865. Vol. 1, Ed. W. C. Ford, New York Times Opinionator, August 27, 2012

Burlingame, Vol. 2, p. 318

4. Ibid.

5. John Hay, Wikipedia entry of Lincoln first meeting

6. Opinionator, Ibid.

7. Burlingame, Vol. 2, p. 154

8. Karl Weber. Lincoln, A President for the Ages, p. 132

9. Burlingame, Vol. 1, p. 318

10. Burlingame, vol. 2, p. 435

Lincoln, p. 155

5 thoughts on “What would Lincoln do now?

  1. Supreme integrity. Ultimate sacrifice.
    A lesser man may well have failed to hold us together. We were robbed of his steady presence in reconstruction. Had he lived we would have an example to follow in knitting our torn country back together.

  2. Wonderful items from you, man. I have consider your stuff previous to
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    1. I think I will have to polish my French, is that your language(?) in order to truly partake of your blog. It looks interesting and maybe instructive, as I too, may once again enter the fray after this wrath subsides! thank you for your kind words, Marmie

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