How Politicians Can Lead Like Lincoln

From a Wall Street Journal story by Steve Inskeep headlined “How Politicians Can Really Lead Like Lincoln”:

During his recent visit to the U.S., Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying that Ukraine’s army would follow the instructions that Lincoln once gave a general—to “chew & choke” the enemy. Zelensky was observing America’s bipartisan tradition of invoking Lincoln.

Barack Obama launched his first presidential campaign at the Illinois statehouse where Lincoln served, and Donald Trump staged a Fox News interview at the Lincoln Memorial. Some of Trump’s Republican critics run a PAC called the Lincoln Project, and President Biden quoted Lincoln in his inaugural address.

Analysts quote Lincoln saying the republic could never be destroyed except from within, and his face appears on billboards promoting civility. Last summer two Cabinet secretaries quoted Lincoln as they wrote about artificial intelligence. When the Supreme Court rejected using race in university admissions, Justice Clarence Thomas quoted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

American politicians would do well to draw on his leadership style as often as they cite his words. Lincoln directed the Union victory in the Civil War and delivered a death blow to slavery, acting in extraordinary circumstances that we can hope the nation never faces again. But some of his techniques for dealing with people apply today, because human nature hasn’t changed.

Lincoln didn’t demonize his opponents. When slavery became a dominant issue in the 1850s, Lincoln spoke carefully. Almost half the states embraced slavery, which he considered such a moral outrage that from 1854 onward he spoke of little else. But he didn’t tell his supporters they were morally superior to the other side. He even told one free-state audience that, as human beings, they were no better than slaveowners: “If we were situated as they are, we should act and feel as they do.”

He believed that people acted out of self-interest, which explained why slaveholders rationalized and defended a social structure that benefited them. And he tried to engage white voters’ self-interest against slavery. In his letters and speeches he used the word “interest” far more often than “liberty,” “freedom” or “moral.” In speeches before great crowds, he warned that slavery would expand into free states and harm white residents. He said a Black woman had a right to be paid for her labor, which white men could relate to because they wanted fair pay for theirs.

Lincoln didn’t signal his virtue. As a candidate for president in 1860, he did not endorse the most radical responses to slavery. Like many contemporaries, he saw no constitutional way to destroy such an entrenched institution, and advocated a more limited goal—containing its spread. He hoped slavery would end but obfuscated as to how, even talking of sending freedpeople overseas. Some abolitionists found him backward and he was slow to embrace them. But in practical terms—what was legally and politically possible, given the white electorate’s views—his policy approach was near enough to the radicals that they became allies.

Lincoln’s calibrated language allowed him to keep attention on the larger problem: the system that upheld slavery. Proslavery forces protected their “despotism” behind layer upon layer of prejudice, economic interest and law—“heavy iron doors,” he said, that trapped human beings with “a lock of a hundred keys.” He said the system violated the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence, and he excoriated conservative opponents for refusing to admit it was wrong. Eventually Lincoln said both North and South were “complicit,” and his indictment of slavery’s power structure made him radical.

Lincoln didn’t scapegoat immigrants. When anti-immigrant societies grew in the 1850s, Lincoln was dismayed. He said if so-called Know-Nothings gained power, he would rather move to “a country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance.”

But people who were wrong still had a vote, and when running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 1858 he attended campaign events with a nativist leader who was rounding up support for him. Lincoln worked to do this without losing his integrity. He refused to pander by endorsing nativist ideas that he “could not endure,” and talked to Know-Nothing voters only of their shared aversion to slavery.

Lincoln didn’t answer every attack. After he won the presidency in 1860 and Southern states responded by starting the Civil War, Lincoln faced criticism across the North. Conservatives called him a dictator who went too far to crush the rebellion. Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from slavery, felt he didn’t go far enough, attacking the president’s “tardy, hesitating, vacillating, policy.” Lincoln eventually met Douglass anyway and worked with him as an ally.

New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley published an open letter in 1862 raging at Lincoln’s failure to free the slaves of Southern rebels. He had no way to know Lincoln had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and was waiting for the right moment to publish it. This time Lincoln did respond with an open letter of his own, but used it for a strategic purpose. Overlooking Greeley’s “impatient and dictatorial tone,” he stated his goal: to “save the Union” in “the shortest way under the Constitution.” This gave the public his rationale for the Proclamation that he knew was soon to come.

Lincoln put his party ahead of himself, and his country ahead of his party. In 1855 the Illinois legislature had to choose a U.S. senator. Lincoln was the leading candidate, but no one received a majority as lawmakers voted again and again. Fearing the opposition was about to prevail, he sacrificed himself, throwing support to an ally who won.

As the first Republican president, Lincoln appointed Democrats to senior positions, such as Edwin Stanton, his secretary of war. General George McClellan was a Democrat and sympathetic to slaveowners, yet Lincoln promoted him. McClellan was so insubordinate that Lincoln eventually took his army away—but reappointed him in a crisis, allowing him to deliver a victory at the battle of Antietam. (McClellan later used his war record to run for president against Lincoln, who trounced him.)

The Lincoln standard is not that of a saint but of a thoughtful politician. He worried less about the news cycle than the long term. He showed empathy, patience and forbearance, a word he often used.

His forbearance also had limits. Having tolerated slavery before the war because he felt the Constitution demanded it, he responded ruthlessly when rebels made war against the Constitution—as the quote selected by Zelensky reveals. Had he failed to do that, we would little note nor long remember him.

Steve Inskeep is co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition and Up First and author of “Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America,” published this week by Penguin Press.

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