“There is little necessity on this occasion to speak at length and critically of this great and good man, and of his high mission in the world. That ground has been fully occupied…The whole field of fact and fancy has been gleaned and garnered. Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.”
Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln,
Team of Rivals, page 15
Fortunately, we can. The challenge with retelling the story of Abraham Lincoln, as Douglass pointed out, is that we’re pretty sure we know all the facts of his life. Lincoln is arguably one of the most well-known and exhaustively studied American politicians, a personality on whom more than 16,000 books have been published, and whose assassination alone has been covered in over 125 books.
But here’s where Doris Kearns Goodwin differs from other scholars. Rather than focusing exclusively on the writings of Lincoln and his correspondence to present us with the time-beiged saintly image of a martyr-president who was forced to get his hands dirty in a civil war not of his own choice, Goodwin instead presents us with a different image of a high-minded and progressive but shrewd, cunning, politically astute and occasionally amoral Lincoln who knew exactly how to work his way around friends and enemies in order to get what he wanted from them. A saint, perhaps, but one who was not averse to making hair-raising decisions with chilling calm and ease, whose feet were firmly planted in the material realm and whose head was not lost in the clouds, but stooped over to scrutinize more earthly concerns.
“Lincoln’s ability to retain his emotional balance in such difficult situations was rooted in acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways.”
Team of Rivals, page 609
Self-awareness was the cornerstone of Lincoln’s ability to remain in control of himself, and coordinate his prodigious talents and knowledge to effectively lead his government. With his “uncanny understanding of his shifting moods” and “profound self-awareness”, he was often able to identify possible sources of his sadness and anxiety very quickly, and develop approaches to help minimize their impact on his day-to-day life while taking a pulse of his readiness to tackle the more unpleasant aspects of waging war. When seven southern states declared secession from the Union before he could take office, Lincoln initially made the mistake of underestimating the gravity of the situation. When the North-South animosity reached fever pitch, he was able to hold himself in check long enough to not take the advice of his colleagues and peers and exacerbate the situation by sending in troops to reinforce southern forts and thereby provoke war with the secessionists. Although it is likely that he felt that war was inevitable after a point, he recognized that he had the moral advantage, and so instead made overtures about “resupplying” forts such as Fort Sumter in South Carolina with food and ammunition, to which the south predictably responded by attacking and capturing the fort. Thus, Lincoln was provided with the moral justification to claim that the United States of America was dragged into a war not of its own choosing.
By letting his enemies paint themselves into a diplomatic corner, Lincoln was able to align his goals of retaining national unity at any cost with his uncanny understanding of the public’s sentiments, and thereby increase his own political influence and authority in continuing an unpopular war.
By practicing techniques that improve your self-awareness – such meditation or reading fiction – you can give yourself an emotional anchor to hold onto that allows you to stay on course even in the midst of the incredibly stressful pressures.
When there are no rules, improvise
“More accustomed to relying upon himself to shape events, he took the greatest control…displaying a fierce ambition, an exceptional political acumen, and a wide range of emotional strengths, forged in the crucible of personal hardship, that took his unsuspecting rivals by surprise.”
Team of Rivals, page 16
In 1861, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeus corpus (a legal distinction that prevents arrest without a trial) which allowed the US army and police services to arrest and detain thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers in several cities. His readiness to unilaterally increase his own war powers, suspend civil liberties, personally take charge of the war effort away from his subordinates and ruthlessly coax, cajole and coerce allies and rivals alike into supporting his policies helped ensure that the war effort was supported at all costs. At the outbreak of war and soon after, he took the initiative to map out a war strategy, use the Navy to blockade all Confederate ports, use gunboats to take control of the Southern waterways, send men to their certain deaths in repeated campaigns to capture key towns and forts, press immigrants into the war service, personally hire and fire military generals, read extensively to educate himself on the science of warfare, and shamelessly put to use political funds that were available to bribe and purchase support for the war.
His readiness to court illegality by improvising with his executive powers and pushing through new and unconventional legislation that ordinarily would have spelled political suicide was reinforced by his moral sure-footedness and uncanny ability to gauge and align with the public’s mood, helping him pre-empt his enemies and keep them on the defensive. Sometimes, as evinced in his case, the end could justify the means.
Sometimes you simply have to stop delegating and take charge of a situation yourself. In such taut, fine-trigger situations of sensitive importance, micromanagement and improvisation can even be welcome.
Always remember how to be entertaining
“Time and time again, he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and settled their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humour. When resentment and contention threatened to destroy his administration, he refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights. Through the appalling pressures he faced day after day, he retained an unflagging faith in his country’s cause.”
Team of Rivals, page 16
As with Roosevelt, Lincoln managed to wield the strength of his personality as a political weapon. As “a master of timing”, he knew that a well-timed joke or one-liner, candid admission of truth or difficulty, and earnestness in a public forum would help him win over the loyalty of his rivals. Indeed, his entire cabinet was drawn of precisely such men who were initially contemptuous of the newly-elected president, but were eventually won over by the strength of his personality and magnanimity. The wily and astute William Henry Seward, the “celebrated senator from New York” who had also served two terms as governor of the same state, joined the Lincoln administration with great reluctance as Secretary of State, but eventually “settled into an assessment of Lincoln that “His confidence and compassion increase every day” and became Lincoln’s “closest friend and advisory in the administration.” The “distinguished elder statesman” from Missouri, Edward Bates, was initially dismissive of him upon joining the administration as Attorney-General, but “eventually concluded that the president was an unmatched leader, “very near being a perfect man.” Republican Senator Salmon P. Chase, himself a heavyweight in the political caucus, had played a central role in the formation of the national Republican party in 1854 and nursed a machine-like ambition for the presidency, but, at the very end “acknowledged that Lincoln had outmaneuvered him.”
A sense of humour is never unwelcome, and all the more effective at cutting through tempers and egos when wielded in conjunction with a charming personality. Take the time to build a store of jokes, present a laid-back demeanor and make sure to always have interesting facts and figures at your fingertips to dispel boredom and moments of immense humdrum. It can mean keeping the best talent you have on your side.
It’s important to realize that all the members of his cabinet outmatched Lincoln with the length of their political lives and the diversity of their public service, but Lincoln outmatched them with the degree of his political ambitions, and “because he was shrewdest and canniest of them all” in manipulating personalities to suit his ambitions. As Goodwin puts it, “every member of this administration was better known, better educated, and more well-known in public life than… the obscure prairie lawyer from Springfield.” But it was the “profound self-confidence” and “a most unexpected greatness” combined with a shrewd understanding of politics and personalities, egos and pride combined with cunning adaptability – the recognition that the extraordinary circumstances of his presidency allowed him to take risks beyond the limits imposed on all presidents prior to him – and the willingness to act without hesitation on all of these realizations that made Lincoln “the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet, truly a team of rivals.