As a new president is sworn in, the towering figure of the Republican Party’s first occupant of the White House will watch over the inaugural proceedings from his seat at the other end of the Mall. What wisdom would he share with us? In accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s sojourn in Washington, especially Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Godwin, his exceptional leadership style contrasts starkly with much of what fills the headlines today.
Among the qualities that stand out is Lincoln’s extraordinary generosity of spirit. He did not hold grudges and refused to let personal slights prevent him from drawing out the best in others. As a young lawyer, Lincoln was treated with contempt on one occasion by the brilliant William Seward. Yet Lincoln called on him to serve as Secretary of State, and Seward was to become his closest colleague and greatest admirer. Lincoln kept the prideful Salmon Chase at his post as Secretary of the Treasury, despite Chase’s constant criticism behind his back and maneuvers to further his own presidential ambitions, because he recognized his essential contribution to the country.
What some regarded as indecisiveness was often Lincoln’s discipline of reflecting, preparing and choosing the right time to act. He took infinite care with his choice of words. On occasion he would compose a strongly worded communication and then sleep on it (no overnight tweeting!), or think better of it and file it. Sometimes, after a more severe dressing-down of a subordinate he would quickly follow up with a letter stressing his respect for the individual.
His self-deprecating sense of humor is something from which our new leader could learn. Kearns relates the story of a congressman who had received Lincoln’s authorization for the War Department’s aid in a project:
When Stanton [the capable and outspoken Secretary of War] refused to honor the order, the disappointed petitioner returned to Lincoln, telling him that Stanton had not only countermanded the order but had called Lincoln a damned fool for issuing it. “Did Stanton say I was a damned fool?” Lincoln asked. “He did indeed, Sir,” the congressman replied, “and repeated it.” Smiling, the president remarked, “If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.”
Lincoln appears as someone remarkably self-aware, with unusual insight into human nature. In one of his first major speeches on slavery, several years before he ran for the presidency, he cautioned against condemning Southerners since “they are just doing what we would do in their place.” Lincoln understood that a man who is condemned tends to retreat within himself and “to close all avenue to his head and his heart.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” you must first win his heart, “the great high road to reason.”
The immortal lines from the second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” reflect not just Lincoln’s vision but the core values and actual practice of the man himself. More than at any time in recent decades we need his wisdom to “bind up the nations’ wounds.” As we enter 2017, can our leaders – and all of us – take a page from Lincoln’s book?