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2004 Presidential Leadership


BORN: February 12, 1809, Hardin County (now Larue County), Kentucky

WIFE: Mary Todd

RELIGION: Unaffiliated

PARTY: Republican

MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Illinois militia (captain)

OTHER OFFICES HELD: Illinois state representative (1834-41), U.S. representative (1847-49)

TOOK OFFICE: March 4, 1861

VICE PRESIDENTS: Hannibal Hamlin (1861-65), Andrew Johnson (1865)

DIED IN OFFICE: April 15, 1865 (assassinated)

BURIED: Springfield, Illinois

by Jay Winik

It was the loneliest of decisions. On his first day on the job, in March 1861, Abraham Lincoln, bags under his eyes, already faced a military crisis: Fort Sumter was surrounded by rebel batteries, and supplies were running dangerously low. What to do? Reinforce it? Give diplomacy a chance? Force a showdown?

Lincoln prevailed on the best and the brightest in his cabinet for advice. The legendary General Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War and a towering fixture in Washington, counseled surrender of the fort -- it was, he said, of inconsequential military value. Gideon Welles, Lincoln's navy secretary, also favored giving it up. So too did Secretary of State William Seward. Echoing the sentiment of much of the country, he emphatically wanted to evacuate: Any aggressive moves, Seward contended, would eviscerate Unionism in South Carolina and ignite a civil war; the best way to end the crisis was to give Sumter up and provide Unionists throughout the South time to consolidate their strength. This way, those who endlessly harangued about Republican coercion would be silenced, a great crisis could be ended, and a ghastly civil war avoided. (In fact, behind Lincoln's back, Seward had already brazenly assured Southerners that Sumter would be evacuated.) And Lincoln's troubles with his advisers were compounded by his public tribulations. One New York Times headline blared: "WANTED: A POLICY."

What to do indeed. But Lincoln would soon rip back -- no concessions. "The tug has to come," he memorably said, "& better now than any time hereafter." He told his cabinet a supply fleet would be dispatched to Sumter. Soon thereafter, Sumter fell. Lincoln shrewdly announced the rebels had fired the first shot, "forcing" on him a decision of "immediate dissolution, or blood." And thus would commence a chain of events leading to a great war that would drag on for four bloody years and consume some 620,000 lives.

Lincoln's niche in history -- and in our affections -- is secure. His greatness comes from many things: He ended slavery, saved the Union, stitched the country together toward war's end, and gave a new birth to freedom. He penned eloquent addresses that will forever reside in the nation's memory. He died a martyr. And almost uniquely, he was a leader of such inexhaustible magnanimity and vision that by war's end he could put himself in the position of rescuing not just the North's bloodied young men but, in his own distinct manner, those of the South as well.

Lincoln seems to rise above other presidents onto a different moral plane, becoming a Christ-like figure, or the closest thing that exists in our national consciousness. Yet he was a riddle of quirks and eccentricities. His self-derogation was real: "My poor, lean, lank face." So was his simplicity: His clothes were invariably out of season or fashion; he referred to himself as "A" and greeted visitors with "howdy"; and he stuffed notes in his pockets and stuck bills in a drawer. He abounded with contradictions: a man of great moral fiber who was a shameless politician; a man of vast intellect who scoffed at great works of literature or history because they were "too heavy for an ordinary mind to digest"; a man of humble origins who blazed with ambition and never quit. (Local settlers once gibed that he was a "wild, harum-scarum kind of man who always had his eye open on the main chance.") No wonder The New York Times called him "peculiar."

More books have been written about Lincoln -- a staggering seven thousand by one estimate -- than any other single American figure. Yet one question remains. Its answer is elusive but it is well worth dwelling upon. How, when the country was suddenly confronted by the mightiest challenge since its auspicious birth, did Lincoln manage to rise to the occasion?

Neither history nor our love affair with Lincoln should obscure just how ill-prepared he was for the job, or the many mistakes he made early on. Before he became president everything about his career smacked of the persistent efforts of a political junkie and an average political hack. He had not held office in over a decade and had never been more than an obscure one-term congressman. Unlike George Washington and Andrew Jackson, he had virtually no military experience. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, he had virtually no diplomatic experience. He had never lived or even traveled abroad. He had no executive experience, almost no formal education, no powerful mentors, and had never overseen anything larger than a two-man law office. He was risk-averse to boot. And then there was the matter of his fragile temperament. He was a man so prone to gloom that he once mourned, "I laugh because I cannot weep."

Was this the man to guide the country in its greatest crisis? Where would he find the inner resolve and wisdom to weather the cataclysm he now faced? To be sure, he craved this war like a criminal wants a firing squad. Yet somehow -- and this is the source of the Lincoln legend and of Lincoln's greatness as well -- in the sobering months and years ahead, this once second-rate politician would find himself. By some combination of design and fate, he would become this nation's greatest war president -- and make this country what it is today.

It was never easy. Not in the beginning, not in the middle, not in the end. From the outset Lincoln, inexperienced and disorderly, found he had to address daunting matters for which prescriptions and precedents scarcely existed. Every executive agency, from the White House to the army, was in turmoil. Cabinet members worked at cross-purposes -- when they weren't undercutting the president. A military machine had to be built literally from scratch. And there was the "Negro" problem, stalking and haunting Lincoln at every turn. Finally, Washington itself was a whirlwind of disarray and confusion. But Lincoln pressed on.

He made tough, controversial decisions. Concerned about "the enemy in the rear," he was unapologetically zealous in censoring telegraphs and the mail; in suspending habeas corpus and in imprisoning ordinary citizens (so-called disloyalists) and even duly elected legislators; in defying Chief Justice Roger Taney (when Taney rebuked Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Lincoln fired back, "Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?"); and in even closing down newspapers. He bravely weathered a storm of public opinion arrayed against him, year after year, every bit as fierce as the Vietnam War protests. In 1864, the North was still in a foul mood. As famed journalist Horace Greeley put it, "Our bleeding, bankrupt almost dying country longs for peace." It did indeed. That year, in the presidential election, Lincoln's own former top general, George McClellan, ran against him on a peace plank. Yet Lincoln pressed on.

And he pressed on even though he had generals who wouldn't fight, couldn't fight, or failed to press the advantage when they did fight. In turn, he sacked general after general. But with brooding detachment, Lincoln endured his own mistakes -- they were many -- and the brittle highs and deepening lows of the war. And he did so with dogged tenacity.

Dogged tenacity. It is a simple explanation for greatness -- but in Lincoln's case, probably quite true. One of the great questions in history is, Why didn't Lincoln give up or give in? Why, when the opportunity for ending the killing presented itself, did he not grab the easy way out, or the expedient way, as a lesser man and a lesser president might have been tempted to do (and as Lincoln himself had done in the past)? He would have been no different from a long list of kings, monarchs, emperors, and other heads of state who bowed to the irrepressible pressures for compromise, or to the forces of nationalism sweeping the globe -- and who, far from being condemned for it, were praised for their statesmanship.

Consider how tempting it might have been to any other president. At several points during the war, it looked as though the Confederacy could, or even would, win, or at least not lose, which amounted to the same thing. The worst riots in American history, the four-day New York draft riots of 1863, raged after Gettysburg, and left anywhere from 105 to 1,000 dead, with black residents lynched and hung from lampposts. And there was no respite; storms of antiwar protests sliced through the Midwest. Once Lincoln had finally appointed Ulysses S. Grant, it was unclear whether the public would persevere with him. The Democrats were demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities ("after fours years of failure...by the experiment of war"). As the appalling number of Union casualties rose in 1864 -- yes, as late as 1864 -- the North was still far from victory, and nearly 200,000 men had deserted the federal army.

The toll on Lincoln's psyche was brutal. During the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, when Grant and Robert E. Lee squared off for the first time, Lincoln barely slept for four days, wandering the White House corridors. ("I must have some relief from this terrible anxiety," he muttered over and over, "or it will kill me.") Even then, as the war dragged on and the carnage mounted, it became clear that the sacred struggle would be neither brief nor easy nor, for that matter, necessarily victorious. While Bill Sherman was stalled in the West, Grant suffered some 52,000 casualties in those six weeks alone -- nearly as many as were lost in the entirety of the Vietnam War; at Cold Harbor, he lost a frightful 9,000 men in one hour -- three times as many as had died in Pickett's Charge the year before. Lincoln himself declared the "heavens hung in black." But when Congress and even Mary Lincoln called for Grant's head after this terrible carnage, Lincoln snapped back: "I can't spare him. He fights!"

The critics of Lincoln never let up: "There is a cowardly imbecile at the head of the government," warned one newspaper. "Disgust with our government is universal," said another critic. In one of the unkindest cuts of all, the dapper Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner called him "a dictator," while another senator, Benjamin Wade of Ohio, speaking for the elites of Washington society, wrote him off as "poor white trash." Yet into the volatile mix, Lincoln, who deeply hated slavery, would issue the most revolutionary document since the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation -- and then later he would lobby vigorously for the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery for all of time. And into this mix, at war's end, he would, in the last speech of his life, declare his support for some blacks to vote -- another first in this nation's history (prompting one John Wilkes Booth to growl: "That means nigger citizenship").

And when the war stalled, we saw another side of Lincoln: a man tough as nails. By the summer of 1864, Lincoln understood that only the strongest measures would save the Union. He embraced the concept of total war, an escalatory measure that would have been unthinkable at the conflict's outset -- and that the South itself had rejected -- and let loose General Bill Sherman. Sherman's March to the Sea unleashed hundreds of miles of death and destruction. The South got the message: "Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead within me forever," Mary Chesnut, the Southern diarist, shuddered. "We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth!"

Yet Lincoln's heart was never hard. Having waged total war, at war's end it was he who spoke of a magnanimous peace to knit a badly divided country back together again ("with malice toward none; with charity for all"); it was he who stood up to the radical Republicans and those voices in his own cabinet who wanted harshness and revenge, instead embracing charity and compassion toward the defeated Confederates; and it was he who sketched the postwar vision to knit the country together in April 1865, thus sparing America the grisly wake of internecine war that has too often been the norm throughout history, as in Northern Ireland or the Balkans or even the Middle East today. As Lee himself put it, "I surrendered as much to Lincoln's goodness as I did to Grant's armies."

There is one more thing worth pondering. As the Civil War entered its waning months, far from being triumphant or cocky, Lincoln was an overwhelmingly melancholy man. Instead of glory, Lincoln once confessed, he had found only "ashes and blood." Like many great generals who have had to send tens of thousands to their deaths, he had a corner of remorse lodged deep in his gut, furiously eating away at him. It is little wonder that the whole experience of the presidency was barren for him; Carl Sandburg once remarked that there were thirty-one rooms in the White House, and Lincoln was not at home in any one of them. But even as a deathly weariness settled over him, Lincoln was never mawkishly self-pitying. Again, he pressed on. It was remarkable, and we are once more forced to ask, how did he do it?

In watching Lincoln evolve as president, one comes away with the sense that he began to feel as if he had somehow been placed on this earth, elected as president, in the eye of this terrible war, as part of some grander design -- to save the Union. And then, for perhaps the first time in his life, he felt not the familiar drumbeat of ambition or of political satisfaction, but of destiny. And when that happened, he was a rock.

And if that meant preserving the Union, well, all else be damned. Perhaps this even explains his curious, almost indifferent attitude toward his own death. "I long ago made up my mind that if anybody wants to kill me, he will do it," Lincoln remarked. And this too: "It is important that the people know I come among them without fear."

On April 14, 1865, as Lincoln readied himself to go to Ford's Theatre, he had been told several times that the evening would be a particularly dangerous one; yet he refused to take along an extra guard. To some, these are the convictions of a man without hate or malice, or the signs of a cavalier recklessness or a morbid bit of bravado, or evidence of yet another troubling blind spot. All this might be true. But with hindsight, we can perhaps also see that they are the actions not of a passive man, but of a man hurtling toward his ultimate fate, without fear or hesitation.

Then came the loud muffled sound, like a violent clap of hands, or the crack of wood. It was the bullet, fired by John Wilkes Booth, that bore into Lincoln's brain.

Presidents may do many things, but they do not have the luxury of complaining, or blaming others, or eluding responsibility, no matter how terrifying its dimensions. Why is it that some lose winnable wars, but others win losable wars? Or some evade the issues of the day, while others tackle them head-on? These are the mysteries of leadership. Second-rate presidents may act "great" during routine times, when it is easy to do so, but only the truly great ones rise to the occasion in difficult times. And where second-rate presidents are somehow always shaped, and prodded, and manipulated by the forces of history, great ones find ways to bend those forces of history to their goals. Thus it was for Lincoln.

He instinctively understood the moral burdens he had to shoulder; he appreciated the high seriousness of the crisis; he grasped its tragic dimensions while never losing sight of the good that could somehow be made out of this awful conflict. And he did this with both a human empathy and a steely resolve that, even now, history has trouble fully sorting out or explaining.

Mr. Winik is author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America (HarperCollins, 2001), which aired as a two-hour History Channel documentary special in April 2003.

Copyright 2004 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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