Lincoln as a Leader Of Men

Elihu Root

May 1, 1998

The life of Abraham Lincoln is full of appeals to the imagination; its dramatic quality absorbs attention. The humble beginnings, the early poverty, the slender opportunity for even the simplest education, the swift rise from the ordinary lot to the heights of station and of power, the singular absence of those aids by which personal ambition commonly seeks its ends, the transcendent moral quality of the cause which he came to lead, the desperate struggle, the triumphant success, the tragic ending, the startling contrast between the abuse and ridicule to which he was so long subjected, and the honor and glory for all time which he achieved–all these tend completely to fill the minds of those who read or listen to the story of Lincoln.

There is another view of Lincoln’s life, however, which we ought not to overlook, and from which a useful lesson may be learned. He was intensely practical. While he never for a moment lost sight of the great ends toward which he struggled, or wavered in his devotion to the eternal principles which justified those ends, he never assumed that his conclusions would be accepted merely because he knew they were right, however clearly he might state them. He did not expect other people to have their minds work as his mind worked, or to reach his conclusions because he thought they ought to reach them, or to feel as he felt because he thought they ought to feel so. He never relied upon authority or dictation or compulsion upon the minds of others.

Never concealing or obscuring his ideals, avowing them, declaring them, constant to them, setting them high for guidance as if among the stars, he kept his feet on the earth, he minded his steps, he studied the country to be traversed, its obstacles, its possible aids to progress. He studied the material with which he had to work–the infinite varieties of human nature, the good, the bad, and, predominantly, the indifferent; the widely differing material interests of sections and of occupations; the inherited traditions and prejudices, the passions and weaknesses, sympathies and dislikes, the ignorance and misunderstanding, the successive stages of slowly developing opinion, the selfishness and the altruism. He understood that to lead a nation in emergency he had to bring all these forces into such relations to his design and to each other that the resultant of forces would be in the direction of his purpose.

This was the field of Lincoln’s great struggle, and here he won by infinite patience and sagacity. During those terrible years of the Rebellion he was not disturbing himself about what principles he ought to maintain or what end he ought to seek. He was struggling with the weaknesses and perversities of human nature at home. He was smoothing away obstacles and converting enemies and strengthening friends, and bending all possible motives and desires and prejudices into the direction of his steady purpose. Many people thought, while he was doing this, that he was trifling, that he was yielding where he ought to have been splendidly courageous and peremptory. He understood as they did not how to bend his material without breaking it; he understood as they did not how many a jest bridged over a difficult situation, and made it possible to avoid a quarrel injurious to the Union cause.

Lincoln’s whole life had been a training for just this kind of struggle. He had begun at the bottom, in a community of simple, poor, and for the most part uneducated people, and he had learned in his contests for the State Legislature to win the support of those people by actual personal contact and influence, standing absolutely on a level with them, and without any possible assumption of superiority or right of dictation. He had moved along up the scale of association with people of broader minds and greater education and more trained intelligence, developing himself as he moved on, but never changing his method of winning agreement. This was always by a frank and honest declaration of principle and purpose, accompanied by the most skillful and sympathetic appeal to the human nature of the man with whom he dealt; based upon a careful study of the capacities and prejudices and motives of that man.

He had three qualities of the highest value. The first was sympathy–genuine appreciative sympathy for all his fellow men. Contemplation of human nature furnishes nothing more encouraging than the general response of mankind to such a quality; it cannot be simulated; it must be real; and then it begets its like in others. Secretary Stanton used to get out of patience with Lincoln because he was all the time pardoning men who ought to be shot; but no one can tell how much the knowledge of that quality in him drew the people of the country toward him and won their confidence and support. Above all, that quality enabled him to understand men, to appreciate how they felt, and why they acted as they did, and how they could be set right when they were wrong.

The second quality was a sense of proportion, with which is always associated humor, or a sense of humor. He knew intuitively what was big and important and must be insisted upon, and what might seem big, but was really small and unimportant, and might be sacrificed without harm. Such a statement may seem a matter of course and of little consequence; but, if we look back in history, we can see that a large part of the most bitter controversies in politics and religion and statecraft and opinion in all fields have been about matters which really were not in themselves of the slightest consequence; and we may realize how important it is in great crises to have leaders who can form the same kind of judgment about the relative importance of questions at issue that future generations may readily form in the reading of history.

The third quality of Lincoln’s was his subordination of himself to his cause. He liked to get on in the world, of course, as any normal man does; but the way he got on was by thinking about his job, not by thinking about himself. During all these years he was not thinking about making Abraham Lincoln famous; he was thinking about putting an end to slavery and preserving the Union. It is interesting to observe that the two who have attained the highest pinnacles are not to be found among the millions of Americans who have dreamed of power and fame for themselves. Washington and Lincoln reached their preeminence by thinking about their work and forgetting themselves.

Lincoln never made the mistake of using words–either oral or written–merely for his own satisfaction. Many fine sentiments are uttered about public affairs, which are not really designed to have an effect upon anybody except the speaker or writer whose feelings are gratified by expression. They are like the use of expletives–profane and otherwise–which simply relieve the feelings of the speaker. Lincoln never made this mistake. When he spoke or wrote, his objective was always the mind of somebody else.

His method with individuals is well illustrated by the incident when a committee of gentlemen called upon him to object to the use of Negro troops. They said they were all patriotic citizens, that their sons were serving in the Union Army, and were cultivated gentlemen, and they objected to having Negroes put upon the same level. Mr. Lincoln said: “Well, gentlemen, if you would rather have your sons die for a black man than have a black man die for your sons, I suppose there is nothing more to be said.” This was a wholly new view of the subject. The objectors were prepared to stand for all time against arguments designed to force them to abandon their prejudice. Lincoln, however, had instantly found the line of least resistance, which left the prejudice undisturbed and at the same time left them nothing to say; so the objection ended.

Another illustration on a broader field is to be found in the great debates with Douglas. From first to last, in these debates, he insisted upon the fundamental proposition that slavery was morally wrong and ought not to continue. He knew, however, that the conservatism and the material interests and the unawakened conscience of the North could not then be arrayed in favor of destroying slavery in the Slave States at the expense of destroying the Constitution.

Accordingly, he carefully and consistently disclaimed any such proposal, and limited himself to demanding that slavery should be restricted to the states where it already existed under the protection of the Constitution, and that its extension should be prevented just as it had been prevented by the ordinance for the Government of the Northwest Territory in 1787, in confidence that, if restricted, it would die a natural death, just as the framers of the Constitution believed it would die when they agreed to the compromises of the Constitution. Upon that proposition, to prevent the extension of slavery because slavery was wrong, he enlisted the public opinion of the North and made possible the election of a Republican President in 1860. In the struggle of the South against that proposition a new situation was created, and in 1863 the whole North accepted the complete emancipation upon which they would have divided fatally five years before.

The Emancipation Proclamation itself illustrates the same wise solicitude to keep the people upon whose support he relied close behind his leadership. After declaring that the slaves shall be free, he concludes with the following paragraph: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

It would be difficult to conceive of a broader appeal to more varied kinds of men and phases of opinion than is contained in this single sentence of thirty-three words. It commands the interest and conciliates the support of all who love justice, of all who revere the Constitution, of all who are determined that the sacrifices of the country in the war shall not have been in vain, of all who regard the judgment of mankind, of all whose sympathy is enlisted by action reverent in spirit and seeking for Divine guidance. It claims no credit for Abraham Lincoln but it places the great act, with a fitting sense of proportion, on a basis to command universal approval and support.

One of the most valuable results of Lincoln’s training was that he understood the necessity of political organization for the accomplishment of political ends. He knew that to attain a great public purpose multitudes of men must be induced to lay aside or postpone or in some way subordinate their minor differences of opinion, and to move together on the lines of major policy. He used all the resources of party organization to hold the people of the North to the support of the Northern armies in the field. Lincoln was a politician, the best practical politician of his time. If he had not been that, the Northern armies would have been abandoned; the Union would have been broken, to the infinite injury of both sections; and slavery would have continued, no one knows how long–probably until another war had been fought.

It will be useful to remember that Abraham Lincoln was a politician. The word is often used as a term of reproach. Such a use indicates the most superficial thinking, or, rather, failure to think. To be a corrupt and self seeking politician ought of course to be a reproach, just as it is a discredit to be a corrupt or unfair business man. Politics is the practical exercise of the art of self-government, and somebody must attend to it if we are to have self-government; somebody must study it, and learn the art, and exercise patience and sympathy and skill to bring the multitude of opinions and wishes of self-governing people into such order that some prevailing opinion may be expressed and peaceably accepted. Otherwise, confusion will result either in dictatorship or anarchy.

The principal ground of reproach against any American citizen should be that he is not a politician. Everyone ought to be, as Lincoln was.