College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

Lessons from Lincoln

What our 16th president can teach us about greatness.

Abraham Lincoln with Generals.

There’s an old saying that our country gets the president it deserves. More likely, however, is that every so often, the country is blessed with a great leader despite itself.

Such was the case with Abraham Lincoln. Though he had neither the resume nor the breeding that hinted at his formidable gifts, he assumed the leadership of the country as it verged on self-destruction, and in so doing, was able to preserve the first democratic republic of any significance in more than a millennium. He possessed an extraordinary ability to unite political opponents behind his causes and to draw out the “better angels” in the nation’s collective nature. For these reasons and so many others, Lincoln is often ranked as our nation’s greatest president.

As the nation prepares again to choose another president—as well as to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth—it is worthwhile to reflect on the lessons Lincoln can still teach us about the nature of greatness.

1. You can be humble and ambitious.

There is the part of the Lincoln legacy everyone knows—born in a log cabin, self-educated, and honest to his lanky bones. Recent scholarship has removed some of the saintliness from his character—Lincoln did not, after all, enter the Civil War intending to free the slaves. But it has also brought out the depth and complexity of his character. Lincoln, the man, was principled and possessed extraordinary intelligence and warmth even as he was shrewd, pragmatic, and supremely ambitious. By the time “the rail splitter” was elected president, he was a wealthy, successful lawyer who had represented some of the nation’s largest interests, such as the railroads.

Bruce Levine, the James G. Randall Professor of History at Illinois, believes it was Lincoln’s skill in reading the public that people too often attributed to divine inspiration. In so doing, they missed the first lesson Lincoln holds for us: saints can be shrewd.

“Lincoln was a man of deep convictions,” says Levine, “but beneath these convictions was a shrewdness that enabled him to read a situation and make tactical decisions.”

A case in point was Lincoln’s success in the 1860 election, says Levine. Although not a believer in racial equality, Lincoln had long opposed slavery as a moral wrong. And in 1856, he and the Republican party staked out what was then a minority position, seeking to strangle slavery by containing it to the South. As the election neared, pressure mounted on the fledgling party to soften its stance to attract more votes. Lincoln adeptly steered his party away from backsliding, certain that the public would recognize the correctness of the position. His election in a four-way presidential contest proved him right.

Lincoln’s approach to emancipation was equally perceptive. He explored his options and waited until he was confident that the public was ready to embrace such a stand before making the declaration. Even so, it was a risky venture. Support wavered in response to the Union’s military fortunes. But Lincoln remained steadfast, confident it was the right decision, and refused to betray the black population.

Levine describes Lincoln as a “politician-educator” who believed he had a responsibility to elevate public opinion by nudging it in the direction best for democracy. As Lincoln’s justifications for war evolved from preserving the Union to preserving a nation dedicated to principles worthy of great sacrifice, he redefined the nation’s understanding of equal rights.

Thus, in looking for a leader, pragmatism is a good companion to conviction.

Abraham Lincoln

2. To manage people well, it helps to genuinely like them.

During the early days of the Civil War, when the Union’s efforts met with continual defeat or stalemate, Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward paid an evening visit to the home of the Union’s contentious commander-in-chief, General George McClellan, to discuss war strategy. The general wasn’t at home, but Lincoln and Seward waited for more than an hour. When McClellan finally returned, he snubbed his visitors and proceeded straight to bed. Instead of chastising McClellan for his disrespectful behavior, Lincoln quietly left.

The story is often told to demonstrate Lincoln’s ability to place historical necessity above personal feelings, says David Herbert Donald, a Harvard historian and U of I graduate who wrote the bestselling biography, Lincoln.

“Lincoln reasoned that the war effort was more important than this slight to his dignity,” says Donald. “When McClellan later failed in battle, Lincoln was less forgiving.”

But Lincoln’s restraint in dealing with McClellan also highlights another lesson in greatness: ego must be kept in check to win friends and manage opponents. “There was a self-confidence underlying Lincoln’s modesty that enabled him to surround himself with strong, often discordant personalities,” says Donald.

Many of these people were chosen because Lincoln believed that each was the best qualified for the job. In other cases, such as retaining unity among the fractious Republican majority in Congress, Lincoln simply had to make the best of difficult situations, which he did magnificently.

One of his most powerful weapons for swaying others to his cause was his sense of humor. Donald says Lincoln used humor masterfully to disarm opponents and win supporters. A senator might march into Lincoln’s office to confront him about a bill only to leave befuddled and unsuccessful, after Lincoln sidelined him with a long, seemingly pointless anecdote from his days back in Illinois.

Yet more powerful than Lincoln’s humor was his genuine fondness for people, says Donald. When Orville Hickman Browning, Lincoln’s friend and closest confidant, refused to campaign for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, following a disagreement over emancipation, their private conversations ceased but their relations did not.

“Lincoln never held grudges,” says Donald. “He easily separated political disagreements from personal ones.”

So, while it helps to be a good storyteller, a leader must have a solid sense of self.

3. Never stop learning.

Abraham Lincoln

Much has been made of Lincoln’s flights of eloquence. His Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address rank among the most inspired speeches in American history.

Being able to motivate with words, though, is not the third lesson in leadership that either Levine or Donald take from Lincoln. More important than the gift of eloquence is the capacity for growth.

“The Lincoln of 1856 is not the Lincoln of 1860 and is not the Lincoln of 1865,” says Levine. “He is constantly growing into his job. He was able to constantly re-evaluate, not dig in his heels, and rethink his position.”

A case in point, says Levine, is that Lincoln came to the presidency with almost no military experience, yet sat down with the ranking generals of the army, read a load of books on military tactics, and, in short order, was a perceptive and able military commander.

But the most notable example was his change in position on racial equality. Although always opposed to slavery as a matter of human rights, it was through his friendship with the black abolitionist Frederick Douglas that, according to Donald, Lincoln came to insist upon a new understanding of liberty: “equality of opportunity in the race of life.”

The fact that Lincoln grew in understanding—he progressed from being in step with the beliefs of his time to being capable of changing his own opinion as well as those of others—showed his supreme gift as a leader.

“Constancy—one might call it stubbornness—is not necessarily the trait we most admire or desire in a public figure,” says Donald.

Lincoln held firm to only two goals—preserving the union and rule of law—and when criticized for his shifts in ground, his response captured his commitment to growth: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. The case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”


Unfortunately, the most humbling lesson we can learn from Lincoln is that greatness is not a quality we can predict. In Lincoln’s own day, Stephen Douglas’s many years of experience made him the obvious choice. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, is so convinced of this backwoods bumpkin’s ineptness, that he is certain he will have to run the administration. In time, Seward, like most people Lincoln met, changed his mind.

President John F. Kennedy once asked Donald, after a presentation at the White House on the Civil War, whether it was necessary for a president to fight a war in order to be great. Donald, sensing Kennedy’s concern about his own legacy, assured him it was not, offering the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose greatest achievements were his peace-time efforts at shepherding the nation through the Depression. Kennedy’s question was a variation of the old query of whether circumstances make the man. And “they do not,” insists Donald, who cites examples of times of crisis when no leader emerged.

Because greatness can be neither conjured nor predicted, it is an unreliable gauge in selecting a president. Levine suggests that rather than trying to predict whether a candidate’s record heralds the country’s next savior, voters should instead ask the question favored by Lincoln: Does that record advance civilization in some way?

“Lincoln believed that the role of government was to elevate human society, to increase human rights, to do what people can’t do for themselves in ways that genuinely strengthen democracy,” says Levine. “Instead of looking for some sign of greatness, I think you have to know what direction you believe is the right one, then see who is going in that direction. A good citizen has the same qualities as a good leader but on a smaller scale. And the best Lincoln had to offer us was a mark that we have yet to come up to.”

See our special series, Lincoln Remembered, including essays and upcoming events to commemorate Lincoln’s bicentennial.

By Holly Korab
Winter 2008