Lincoln to the Rescue

What the master politician of 1862 can teach the presidential hopefuls of 2012

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Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME; Original image by Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress

Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand at Antietam in 1862.

One lesson: it’s not about them. lincoln never confused his mission with himself. He had the hide of a rhinoceros and a rare ability to set the past aside when turning former enemies into allies. His favorite expression, according to Hay, was “I am in favor of short statutes of limitations in politics.” To Lincoln, a grudge was a waste of resources. If a person could be useful, it mattered little whether he was friend or foe.

There is no better example than his decision in January 1862 to entrust leadership of the War Department to Edwin Stanton, a prominent Pennsylvania attorney. Years earlier, Lincoln had been retained as one of several lawyers helping defend a manufacturer of reaping machines against the powerful McCormick Co. in a patent dispute. Stanton was the star of the defense team, and he went to great lengths to humiliate Lincoln when the case went to trial. Calling him “that damned long-armed ape,” Stanton refused to seat Lincoln at counsel’s table. All that was forgotten when Lincoln went looking for a man brazen and hard enough to perform the thankless task of bringing order to the vast Union war machine.

Lincoln also teaches the lesson of patience. Hardly a day passed in 1862 without an exasperated lecture from someone about the need to take bold steps against both slavery and McClellan, yet Lincoln resisted. He needed to move gradually, to persuade himself and moderate voters of the North that he had exhausted all incremental steps. Even after he decided that the general must be fired and the slaves freed, he waited for the right political moment. His secretaries described this excruciating period. He “grew sensitive and even irritable,” wrote Nicolay and Hay. “Could no one exercise patience but himself?” The long wait for a victory with which to frame his Emancipation Proclamation was perhaps the most delicate interval of his presidency. Lincoln “was compelled to keep up an appearance of indecision which only brought upon him a greater flood” of demands for an answer, his aides wrote. “During no part of his Administration were his acts and words so persistently misconstrued.”

Anyone who thinks the risk of a gaffe is something new in the lives of Presidents should listen to Lincoln. Newspapers were so eager to bend his language to their own agendas that he learned to ration his speeches in self-defense and thus mastered the art of the extremely short yet powerful address—like the one at Gettysburg. As he said to a clamoring crowd in Maryland in October 1862, “In my present position it is hardly proper for me to make speeches. Every word is so closely noted that it will not do to make trivial ones.”

This painful interim was necessary because Lincoln understood that even in times of extreme polarization, the moderate center is the path to presidential success. Was then and is now. He offered an arresting metaphor one summer day in 1862, when a delegation of prominent New England abolitionists admonished him to take a stronger stand against slavery. After a long pause, he surprised his visitors by asking if they recalled “that a few years ago Blondin walked across a tightrope stretched over the falls of Niagara.”

Of course they remembered. Lincoln was referring to well-publicized stunts by the tightrope walker Jean-François Gravelet, who went by the name the Great Blondin. In 1859, Gravelet made a series of crossings over the roaring water. He pushed a wheelbarrow, stopped to cook an omelette, even carried his manager on his back. Lincoln visited Niagara Falls in 1848, and it left an indelible impression. Now the image of a man making his way along a 3-in. rope above such sublime and terrifying force struck Lincoln as a perfect metaphor for his own balancing act.

One of the visitors later recalled the President’s words: “Suppose,” Lincoln said, “that all the material values in this great country of ours, from the Atlantic to the Pacific—its wealth, its prosperity, its achievements in the present and its hopes for the future—could all have been concentrated and given to Blondin to carry over that awful crossing.” Suppose “you had been standing upon the shore as he was going over, as he was carefully feeling his way along and balancing his pole with all his most delicate skill over the thundering cataract. Would you have shouted at him, ‘Blondin, a step to the right!’ ‘Blondin, a step to the left!’ or would you have stood there speechless and held your breath and prayed to the Almighty to guide and help him safely through the trial?”

That reference to the nation’s achievements and hopes points to a final lesson from that fiery year. Even as he felt his way along the tightrope, Lincoln always kept his eye—and the eyes of the public—on the shore beyond. Americans have always been a future-oriented people, and our most admired Presidents have been the ones who painted tomorrow in bright colors, no matter how grim the today. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan: all were heirs to Abraham Lincoln, who sat down late in 1862, after an election setback, with his armies stalled and his party on the verge of revolt, and penned a detailed description of a future of unrivaled prosperity and national influence—a future that came true.

“We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope on earth,” he wrote in his unforgettable conclusion to that message. Perhaps it is strange that anyone could sound such a trumpet at such a time and have a strife-torn people believe it. But if the descendants of those people were to give up on that vision a century and a half later, in their own hour of strife, well, that would be even stranger.

Adapted from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, by David Von Drehle, published by Henry Holt

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