Americans of Lincoln’s day certainly pined for something more than his seemingly small-minded attention to politics. In the midst of the greatest crisis the nation had ever faced, Lincoln spent dozens of hours each week painstakingly distributing the rapidly growing number of federal jobs at his disposal. “He seems to me to be fonder of … patronage, and personal questions, than of the weightier matters of empire,” complained the celebrated author and attorney Richard Henry Dana. In August 1862, as the failure of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was bringing the Union’s military fortunes to their darkest pass, Lincoln nevertheless devoted huge blocks of time to selecting tax collectors authorized by the first internal-revenue act.
Why? Because he realized that by giving plums to exactly the right members of the opposition Democrats, the right Irish immigrants, the right Methodists—even the friends of influential newspaper editors—he could bind them more tightly to his shaky Union coalition. Politics today is often a matter of energizing a President’s base, but for Lincoln, success was a matter of adding new supporters: if he could collect enough, the Union could be restored. As Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles came to appreciate, time spent by Lincoln on favor seekers was every bit as important to the war effort as time spent poring over military maps: “Never under any Administration were greater care and deliberation required” in dispensing presidential favors, for Lincoln was shoring up “a demoralized government and a crumbling Union.” America’s next President will face a version of this challenge as he tries to build a coalition to tackle such divisive issues as debt, taxes and immigration.
Lincoln as political strategist is front and center in Steven Spielberg’s new film. He trades votes, dangles patronage, hedges principles and tiptoes on the brink of deceit. He pleads, cajoles and threatens. He seems always to be at least two moves ahead of everyone else on the Washington chessboard. And he has to be, because what he is attempting—the passage of a constitutional amendment to end slavery, over the determined opposition of Copperhead Democrats—is both difficult and critically important. Lincoln makes glorious the earthy art of grubbing for votes.
Well before that showdown in the waning days of the war, Lincoln relied on his political acumen to survive and even thrive through the most perilous year in American history, 1862. It was the year in which the Civil War became a cataclysm, the federal government became a colossus and the Confederacy came nearest to winning its independence. In 1862, Lincoln rang the death knell for slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation. He established himself firmly as Commander in Chief and held the North together while unimagined carnage in battles like Shiloh and Antietam forged the military leaders who would eventually win the war—men like Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Farragut. Under a constant cloud of a possible military coup, he fended off uprisings in Congress and among members of his Cabinet. He signed the visionary bills that created the transcontinental railroad, the modern fiscal system, the homesteading movement and the nation’s land-grant universities.
“Never has there been a moment in history when so much was all compressed into a little time,” one U.S. Senator observed. And never since the founding of the country had so much depended on the political skills of one man. As Obama and Mitt Romney reach the final hours of their race for the heavy prize of leading a polarized America through its next four years of challenges, they—and we—could learn a lot from the Lincoln of 1862.