Lincoln's legacy of leadership

Today marks 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln penned what has become one of the most frequently quoted writings of our nation’s 16th president. The letter, written in response to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley’s blistering editorial published days earlier, at once sheds light on Lincoln, the man, and underscores fundamentals of effective leadership.

In “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” Greeley sharply rebuked Lincoln, questioned his policies and demanded that slaves be emancipated immediately.

After carefully reading Greeley’s rant that included accusations of being “strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act,” and “there is not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile,”
Lincoln responded. [All emphases are in the original text.]

EXECUTIVE MANSION,

Washington, August 22, 1862.

DEAR SIR: I have just read yours of the 19th, addressed to myself through the New York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not now and here controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here argue against them. If there be perceptible in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing,” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours,

A. LINCOLN.

A remarkable expression in many ways – not the least being Lincoln’s focus on the point of his intended response and his disarmingly kind, first-paragraph setting aside of the 2,251-word jeremiad with which Greeley had just assailed him – the letter manifests Lincoln’s congruity of thought and action and illustrates characteristics of genuine leaders. Among them: humility to respect others including those with highly divergent views, willingness to honor truth, the ability to discern priorities and the capacity to act with courage.

To witness the congruity, take a moment for a parallel reading, first of paragraphs in Lincoln’s 1842 Temperance Address, below, and then the 1862 response to Greeley. What emerges is confirmation of Lincoln’s consistency and a concise tutorial on the theory and practice of persuasion. [Again, emphases are in the original text.]

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.

Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interest.

This depth of understanding of human nature equipped Lincoln to engage respectful robust dialogue even and especially with those with very different philosophies and opinions. By not denigrating those with perceptions divergent from his own – not making them offenders for a view – he engaged actual and potential opponents in processes of discovering and designing ways forward.

Among the basic traits and functions people need from their leaders – only some of which the people may consciously recognize – is for leaders to acknowledge truth; to deal with things as they really are and not simply acquiesce to the preferences of those they are responsible to lead. Leaders who shrink from so doing, under the guise of responsively “giving the people what they want” are guilty of errors and omissions akin to those committed by parents whose behavior suggests they believe their primary role is to be their children’s buddy (read: enabler).

An essential component of truthfulness for anyone, especially a leader, is the “duty to be candid,” as executive mentor Timothy Clark has emphasized. A natural complement to the duty of candor is the responsibility to act – not to philosophize, speechify or patronize, but to take constructive action – with courage; courage being not the absence of fear but willingness to engage assertively in the face of it.

Another marker of outstanding leadership is the conscious acknowledgement of principles, the ability to discern priorities among them, and to reconcile, if not balance, competing and even conflicting values. In August 1862, numerous competing values confronted President Lincoln: state sovereignty vs. duty to rectify gross injustices to people brought to America as slaves vs. his obligation and commitment to preserve the Union of states vs. …

By his exercising of these traits as he responded to Greeley’s rant – surely not the only challenge to his efforts, just the most recent and highly charged – Lincoln modeled attitudes and behaviors sorely needed in our contemporary world.

Commenting on an additional classic Lincolnian pronouncement, Benjamin Mueller offers insights about the qualities of mind and character that produced the letter to Greeley:

Lincoln suggests in his second inaugural that necessity and circumstance can guide the tide of history. But for our lives to have meaning, we must tell ourselves that we did what we could do when the forces of necessity allowed it. Americans, Lincoln says, must act today in order to tell a coherent story about themselves tomorrow.

As relevant and compelling now as they were a century and a half ago, Lincoln’s example of integrity and legacy of leadership continue to edify and encourage the necessary continuing efforts to save the Union and the culture of freedom it was created to protect.

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  • Ross Collier

    Hi Stan,

    Thank you for the thoughtful essay. It makes me wonder when, if ever, the preference of a constituency should be considered in crafting legislation. Is the proverbial “will of the people” ever an argument for shaping the law a certain way? Or is it always secondary, if not completely immaterial?

    • Duane

      I would argue that if a statesman (as opposed to a politician) is committed to principles of justice and morality, the will of the people contrary to those principles should be immaterial. If the people replace him, they will get what they deserve. Statesmen seem to be rare these days, as politicians are seldom replaced.