July 21, 2019 | 92° F

The leadership of Abraham Lincoln

This month marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth in backwoods Kentucky. No American has surpassed, or likely will ever surpass, his accomplishments in public, political leadership. As our Civil War president, Lincoln attained greatness in myriad ways that have been revered by millions, but two of his achievements stand out above the rest.

Like countless Americans, I became fascinated with Lincoln when I was very young. At age eight, I recorded (on black aluminum, at 78 rpm) a quaint essay that told in my high-pitched voice how Lincoln "lived at Knob Creek when he was young. His mother died when he was 11. His sister and he then got a new mother."

I still love Lincoln's story of getting "a new mother" who encouraged his reading and nurtured his dreams; of clearing and farming the hardwood forest of Indiana; and of his longing to make a mark in a land where it seemed all the important political things had already been done by the departed and deified Founding Fathers who created the American Union. Moving to Illinois, Lincoln successfully studied and practiced law; married, above his station, Mary Todd; and became the leader of his state's Whig Party.

But no 8-year-old of my generation would ever have heard of Abraham Lincoln if he had not, against incalculable odds, in 1860 become the presidential nominee of the new northern political party, the Republicans, devoted to stopping the westward expansion of slavery. Everyone who cares about American history should study this remarkable story — but it cannot detain me now. Suffice it to say that as Lincoln took the presidential oath of office on March 4, 1861, the United States was on the brink of a civil war in which 600,000 people and the institution of slavery would perish and from which the modern American nation would be born. Neither Lincoln nor anyone else knew these things at the time.

Speaking at his first inauguration, in a carefully wrought address that is now usually forgotten compared to what he said at Gettysburg and at his second inauguration four years later, Lincoln did something momentous that reflects the first of the two great achievements that so deeply stir my admiration. He declared that the North would not back down from its determination — expressed by his own election as president — that slavery should not be allowed to expand westward into the new lands then being occupied by thousands of ambitious, restless Americans.

Slavery could remain undisturbed in the southern states where it then existed, Lincoln said, but it could not be permitted to grow. Both sides, North and South, rightly believed that without expansion slavery would die a natural death. "One section of our country," he said, "believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended." Lincoln held the ground upon which he had been elected, following decades during which American statesmen had compromised away the point. No American leader, before or since, has so resolutely occupied such a courageous political position.

Yet how could those of his countrymen who nominally, or even passionately, agreed with their new president possibly be persuaded to endure the unprecedented and utterly unanticipated agonies that followed? Lincoln supplied the answers in what is to me his other great achievement: his eloquent, world-changing expressions of the reasons for fighting and winning the Civil War. His summonses to his fellow Americans brought victory to the North and redefined our national life. They also set an epochal standard of leadership to which men and women have aspired ever since. 

Lincoln's reasons for fighting the Civil War were not expressed to the American people all at once. In the first inaugural, before the war had even begun, the only goal was to preserve the sacred Union that had been handed down by the Fathers to Lincoln's generation of Americans. Never was the goal of keeping North and South together expressed more eloquently:

"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 broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

But winning a terrible war required far more inspiration than union alone could supply. In Lincoln's brave words the Civil War also became a war for democracy and a war for freedom. The Declaration of Independence had expressed the nub of the democratic idea, that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," but the actual practice of democracy was unknown until Lincoln's own era. At each election thousands of white males now gathered for extended partisan oratory, followed torchlight parades to the ballot boxes and established the world's first popular political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. Lincoln was well versed in this system of robust participation, majority rule and peaceful transitions of power.

Then, in 1861 a rebellious minority of Southerners flouted the democratically elected government of the United States and established a competing government to defend slavery. The South had its own claims upon democracy to be sure, but through his passionate words Lincoln succeeded in framing the Union cause as a war for popular government, a war for democracy. At Gettysburg, Lincoln elevated democracy to the highest of human accomplishments and gave it timeless expression by vowing "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." Lincoln cast the war as essential to the preservation of democracy, and he secured its place in the same pantheon of ideals where the Founding Fathers had put union.

Finally, in Lincoln's hands the Civil War also became a war to end slavery, a war for freedom. Military considerations and growing political pressures within the North, mixed with Lincoln's need to rally his countrymen, black and white, lay behind his increasingly frequent affirmations that the war would usher in "a new birth of freedom." In his December 1862 message to Congress, he declared, "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth." With Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, advancing northern armies literally became instruments of freedom, and with each Union victory slavery's hold upon the land grew weaker. Sometime during the war's final years, it is fair to say that every American knew the North's military victory would forever abolish slavery within the United States. And it did.

Looking back upon Lincoln's success in mobilizing Americans to fight for union, democracy and freedom, it is clear that the Civil War secured union far more definitively than it did democracy or freedom. The nation would never again be torn asunder, but every subsequent generation of Americans has quarreled about the meaning and practice of democracy and freedom. Emancipation loosened the slaves' chains but did not bring full freedom. The practice of democracy has been increasingly refined but it is still a work in progress. Whenever these ideals are invoked and debated, the name of Lincoln is and ought to be heard.

No leader in our history has ever done more to explain the reasons for calling upon a people for such sacrifice or for summoning them to transform their society.


Richard L. McCormick, a professor of American history, is president of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Richard L. McCormick

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