A classic tenant of crisis management for savvy leaders. Even if your personal chipmunks are running a marathon in your stomach, when you have a team—whether its four classmates, a room full of colleagues, or all 328 million Americans—a time comes when it hits the fan, you set up your essential goal, put on your game face, hunker down, and pass out the assignments to the most qualified, most tested in the room. That makes it much easier to appear sweat less!
Establishing the Critical Goal
Leading a country and overseeing a military at war requires an intensely capable person. Lincoln wasn’t that person at the beginning of the Civil War, but he made it his business to catch up. Some say it took him until he hired U.S. Grant in March 1864, but Lincoln established his goal at the get-go. He did not waiver in his belief that preserving the Union was his prime responsibility. Everything else came second, was collateral damage, or would be a tool to accomplish this goal.
Lincoln preferred to focus on the essential foe and not push a blanket plan to prohibit slavery as he prepared the Emancipation Proclamation. He battled flames in front of him on the battlefield and saw significant matters smoldering behind him, threatening to ignite the abolitionists and the opposition Copperheads at his rear. This messy political stew revealed the alchemy he brewed while working to weave the nation together and draw his critics apart. Developing the persuasive mixture eluded him as his supporters began to lose faith that Lincoln could manage the broth before the wildfire consumed him.
Jousting with Journalists
Being a writer himself who appreciated a turn of phrase, Lincoln enjoyed mixing it up with journalists. Due to his seemingly “rustic” communications skills and quick mind hidden beneath a slow delivery, he could be waiting for reporters’ questions twenty steps ahead of them and have a fitting quip ready. Today wrangling with the media is a required sport for office holders, particularly if they seek or have achieved higher office. Disarming humor, not used as a spear but as a reminder of shared humanity, seems to have nearly disappeared with an earlier generation (think Ronald Reagan, who often appeared with a smile to friend or foe alike, or Barack Obama, who could flash a smile when he wasn’t preoccupied with a financial implosion).
Lincoln saw journalists as another branch of politics. (At the time 3,000, or three-fourths of the newspapers published in America, were supported by a political party). He worked to establish a mutual understanding with the big three of the day: James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, Democratic, pro-slavery, against most of Lincoln’s stands; Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, an abolitionist who had a love-hate relationship with the President, but got special treatment on several stories; and Henry Raymond of the New York Times, a Republican and formerly Greeley’s chief lieutenant, later founder of the New York Times in 1851.
Greeley, like Bennett. loved his role in journalism, but the two loathed each other, primarily for political reasons; A final Greeley-Raymond final split came when Raymond beat him to become New York’s Lieutenant Governor in 1854. Setting up the perfect storm between the three major newspaper editor’s Lincoln needed to cajole. In 1864 he helped engineer Lincoln’s 1864 re-nomination.
Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable or Worse
Bennett came from the pro-Democratic Party, pro-slavery and against pretty much everything Lincoln valued, but Lincoln wooed him rather than pushing him away, most of the time. Lincoln walked a tightrope between Bennett and Greeley when he fed stories and news tips to Greeley, but at times the Tribune bit the hand that fed it, angering Lincoln.
In August 1862, Horace Greeley published “The Prayer of the Twenty Million,” a plea of the “Loyal Millions” requiring a “frank, declared, unqualified, ungrudging execution of the laws of the land.” Greeley wanted Lincoln to enforce the emancipating provisions of the Second Confiscation Act (July 17, 1862) removing slaves from the Confederate states. Greeley believed his readers had carried Lincoln to victory and “now feel that the triumph of the Union is dispensable not only to the existence of our country to the well-being of mankind.” They expected Lincoln to deliver on their request.
Lincoln responded on August 22, 1862 in the Daily National Intelligencer, a newspaper long a part of the Washington scene, founded by George Washington. Lincoln said he did not argue with what Greeley said, but reaffirmed his own chief goal to “save the Union and not either to save or to destroy slavery.” At the very bottom of the letter, Lincoln affirmed: “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere be free.”
Concerning the letter, historian David Herbert Donald pointed out Lincoln sought to assure the large majority of Northern people that he did not want to see the war transformed into a crusade for abolition, while offering himself time to contemplate further moves against slavery.
No doubt that Lincoln suffered at the hands of the press, but he also knew how to give as well as he got and used humor as honey to make the message go down a little easier. Yet he chastised a visitor to his office who pestered him for “one of his stories.” Lincoln noted his stories were not a “carnival act but were a useful way of directing discussion.” (Elihu B Washburne Chapter3 note 15)
Lincoln exercised patience, waiting for a victory, or close to it, to bolster his proclamation. He only freed the slaves in the states that were in Rebellion—the Confederacy, holding the freedom of slaves throughout the country for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Who Was the Greater Martyr?
The question came up recently as to whether Lincoln or the current President were the greater “martyr” (poor word choice, given that one made the ultimate sacrifice) to the slings of the press. While the current President has a wide array of broadcast and digital media to pester him, Lincoln could only rely on the telegraph and the vital coast-to-coast postal system to send his lithograph—with his warts, wayward tie knotted under his collar, and an unruly mop of black hair—far and wide. His tired, sympathetic mug became fodder for frequent political cartoons that etched in the brains of the electorate.
Lincoln’s low key personality and friendships helped him take on the darts that were flung his way. He had fewer instruments available to respond, being able to utilize only the overhead wires and the power of his pen. He aimed his words at “the people” of the entire nation—North and South alike. The modern president reacts by email or sends a barrage of Twitter messages laser-focused on those aligned to him, “his base,” not concerned about increasing his support or addressing the entire country.
Seven years ago, Mark Bowen of The Atlantic looked at “How Lincoln Was Dissed in His Day.” He said that the “bile poured on him from every quarter made today’s Internet vitriol seem dainty.” Lincoln seemed caught in a no-win situation, always criticized by those who felt he had gone too far versus those who believed he hadn’t gone far enough. (Mark Bowen, “How Lincoln Was Dissed in His Day,” June 2013.)
Lincoln’s critics came not just from the South, but from Northern sources, causing him “great pain,” according to his wife, in part because he had thin-skin and felt the thorns others might ignore. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher ‘s attack specially grieved the President, who was sensitive about his lack of formal education. Beecher wrote:
” It would be difficult for a man to be born lower than he (Lincoln) was. He is an unshapely man. He is a man that bears evidence of not having been educated in school or in circles of refinement.”
After reading such an attack, Lincoln exclaimed: “I would rather be dead than, as President, thus abused in the house of my friends.” Note, he did not take Beecher off his list of friends. When faced with a raft of such statements, Lincoln would wave his hand and say, “Let us speak no more of these things.” (Ibid.)
In 1861, Ohio Republican, Lincoln’s own party, William M. Dickson charged that Lincoln “is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity. . . and his spirit necessarily infuses itself downwards through all departments.” Early in the war, Lincoln was still learning the ropes, but this had to sting.
Charles Sumner, a Republican from Massachusetts, to whom Lincoln often turned for advice, opposed his re-nomination in 1864, wrote: “There is strong feeling among those who have seen Mr. Lincoln, in the way” of business, that he lacks practical talent for his important place. It is thought that there should be more readiness and also more capacity, for government.” (Bowen)
Could Jealousy Have Framed the Response?
If one looked at Lincoln’s Inaugural Address through a clear, clean lens, would not the words sing?
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this road land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
And yet, an editorial writer for the Jersey City American Standard (surely a Democrat) found the speech “involved, coarse, colloquial, devoid of grace, and bristling with obscurities and outrages against the simplest rules of syntax.” Ouch!
The Gettysburg Address Didn’t Fare Much Better
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” The Harrisonburg Patriot & Union printed a much-belated apology 150 years later. Thank goodness they weren’t, and we have this example of clean, heartfelt writing.
The responses pro and con to the Gettysburg Address no longer sway modern opinions. It’s established that positive responses were from the Republican press, while the negative came from the Democratic. Those in-between might have been caught up in the custom of the times that believed the longer the speech, the better it was. Though the crowd that day, most standing throughout, would appreciate a two-minute speech. Perhaps the true nature of Lincoln’s pared-down speech, using exact, purposeful words and few of them (269 in the original speech) would fit nicely on the front pages of newspapers across the country. His intention: to reach the masses.
The celebrated orator who spoke for two hours ahead of Lincoln, Edward Everett, knew a good speech when he heard it and gave credit to Lincoln in a note. “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Inside the Lincoln Shrine
Since he did not sit for TV interviews, Abe did not require Pancake makeup and likely would not have taken to it, indicating with a quip that not much could improve his physical image. Today the lights in the Lincoln Memorial and the exquisite work by sculptor Daniel Chester French do not require a touchup. Recently the current White House occupant chose a respite in Lincoln’s shine to seat his favorite contemporary news team for a partisan report.
Maybe the 16th President would have equated that with his sit-down with Greeley of the Big Three Newsmen in the 19th century, but maybe he would have preferred the sound of school children instead. Lincoln, accustomed to working in the White House all but three weeks of the Civil War, might have been surprised that a month sequestered there be such a burden for the current president. Likely Lincoln would see the visit inside as a respite—maybe to catch the draft from the former’s reputation.
The World Sweated After His Final Speech
Once the ink on the Appomattox surrender dried, Washingtonians rushed to the White House portico to hear a response from their President, expecting a grand announcement of victory. They didn’t know Abe, who asked the army band to play “Dixie” on the lawn outside his window, calling it a “good tune.”
Lincoln didn’t gloat, instead moved on mentally to the essential work–bringing the nation together. He called for national thanksgiving. He did not plan vengeance against the South’s leader and agreed with a letter he’d received that said: “The people want no manifestations of a vengeful spirit. They are willing to let the unhappy rebels live, knowing that at the best, their punishment, like Caine (sic), will be greater than they can bear.”
Instead Lincoln talked about the hard task ahead: Reconstruction and bringing the tattered nation back into one. John Wilks Booth, a late entry to the far edge of the audience, did not have to strain to hear the President’s high-pitched voice. His disgust grew into rage as Lincoln advanced the idea of the elective franchise for the colored veteran men.
Lincoln told the crowd that by keeping the vote from these men (now 140,000 strong after the deaths of 40,000 black Union soldiers), were saying:
“This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.”
The President sealed his fate when he spoke of rewarding those who had sacrificed the most, (see note) extending the vote to any black male veteran. With these words, the anger in Booth’s mind boiled over to rage. His initial plans were to kidnap Lincoln to exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. In his wrath, Booth heard Lincoln’s words as the ultimate sin and from that moment planned for Lincoln to pay the ultimate price.
Yet the country and the Southern states suffered more because of Booth’s action. Bleeding emotions from those fateful days 155 years ago, misunderstandings and grievances surrounding race shape the national psyche and influence the nation’s divisions today, threatening to bring more destruction to America than a pandemic ever could.
You decide: Who was the greater martyr?
Jennifer Weber, “Lincoln’s Critics: The Copperheads,” University of Michigan Vol. 32, Issue 1, Winter 2011, p. 33-47
Mark Bowden, “How Lincoln Wad Dissed in His Day,” The Atlantic Magazine, June 2013
Mr. Lincoln ‘s White House, Notable Visitors: Henry J. Raymond www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/residents-visitors/notable-visitors-henry-j-raymond-1820-1869
David Blanchette, The State Journal-Register, Springfield, IL. “Abraham Lincoln, like Donald Trump had his media enemies, too” February 25, 2017
Horace Greeley’s” Open Letter to President Lincoln,” New York Tribune, August 19, 1862
Abraham Lincoln’s “Letter to Horace Greeley,” Daily National Intelligencer, August 22, 1862
Donald Herbert Donald, Lincoln, (London: Random House, 1995)
Ryan Holiday, “Abraham Lincoln as Media Manipulator-in-Chief: The 150-Year History of Corrupt Press,” Observer, November 5, 2014
National Archives: “Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War,40,000 of the 180,000 negro ground troops died in the Civil War; 10,000 in battle and 30,000 of disease, receiving different treatment than white soldiers. Thus 75% of blacks died of disease vs. 50% of whites.
Louis P Masur, Lincoln’s Last Speech, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) p. 12
NOTE: Michael Burlingame’s 1000-page tome, Abraham Lincoln, Vol II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) p. 810 The week of the murder Booth was challenged as to what he had done for the Cause. While he had thought of the death of Lincoln, he had not moved on it, instead having put together a group to kidnap the President, planning since the prior fall. But the events including the surrender, pushed him to act.
Poynter.org, “Today in Media History: Reporters describe Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address,” Nov. 19, 2014
History.com, “The Gettysburg Address,” accessed Sept. 7, 2018
Saturday Night Live YouTube channel, “Weekend Update: Jedediah Atkinson on Great Speeches,” Nov. 17, 2013
Email interview with Eric Foner, historian at Columbia University, Sept. 7, 2018