What Lincoln Can Still Teach Us

By Aaron Kliegman

April 9, 1865, exactly 145 years ago to the day of this writing, marked the symbolic end of the bloodiest, most challenging chapter in American history. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Yes, the American Civil War officially continued for several weeks afterward, but it effectively ended with Lee’s surrender.

For the preceding four years, Americans had slaughtered each other in what remains by far the deadliest war in American history. Only masterful, perhaps unmatched, wartime leadership and statesmanship could lead the country through this conflict, which threatened the American republic like nothing before or since.

On the surface, Abraham Lincoln was an unlikely candidate for the task. Born in poverty on the rural frontier, Lincoln was “the most shut-mouthed man,” according to a long-time colleague. Furthermore, he was a self-taught lawyer who served just one summer in the militia and a single term in Congress before reaching his country’s highest office.

And yet, Lincoln became, along with Winston Churchill much later, one of the two greatest English-speaking statesmen of the 19th and 20th centuries, winning a war of national survival while in supreme command.

Lincoln’s story is remarkable, his presidency indispensable — and they are still relevant. Indeed, we can all learn from him and should, especially as America faces major challenges today, both at home and abroad. Of course, none of these challenges compare to the Civil War — yes, that includes the coronavirus — but this should make us all the more willing to be Lincoln’s students.

Perhaps most importantly, Lincoln was both a principled politician and a practical man. “Important principles may, and must, be inflexible,” Lincoln said in his last public speech in April 1865. At the same time, however, Lincoln was sober and realistic, understanding that leaders can be flexible toward short-term, tactical matters to achieve longer-term, strategic objectives.

Despite his calm demeanor, Lincoln was unrelenting in seeking the enemy’s unconditional surrender, even rejecting calls to negotiate diplomatic settlements. This approach is certainly not warranted in all conflicts but was necessary during a war of national survival.

Lincoln defined the major cause of the Civil War in a way that made compromise not an option. “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended,” Lincoln said in his first inaugural address. “This is the only substantial dispute.” In his second inaugural address, the president added: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

It’s striking how clearly and simply Lincoln described the war, and how he characterized it as a conflict between freedom and oppression. Rarely does one hear a leader use such blunt yet powerful language today.

Such rhetoric is an example of Lincoln’s mastery of the English language, one of his greatest assets. Lincoln, like Churchill, showed how effective such command of language can be. In fact, both men worked hard to master their shared native tongue through tireless reading (especially Shakespeare), research, and editing. “In times like the present,” Lincoln said, “men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity.” The president took great care in crafting his speeches to ensure they passed that test. He fused into his prose “sincerity and sympathy, logical directness, a severity of style almost classic, and homely plainness,” according to scholar Paul Angle.

Lincoln knew that explaining why a war is being fought is important, not just the fighting itself. To that point, he recognized that winning public support and staying positive, at least publicly, is crucial in times of crisis. “[P]ublic sentiment is everything,” Lincoln once said. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” As Lewis Lehrman writes in his book on Lincoln and Churchill, the president “publicly rejected the very notion of defeat — no matter [his] inner doubts.” And Lincoln had inner doubts, even depression. But he was optimistic in public, showing the American people a vision of peace and unity past the bloodshed.

Lincoln, the greatest commander in chief in American history, had no military experience before entering office. Yet he transformed a 16,000-man army spread across the continent at the beginning of the war into a highly effective 2-million-man fighting force by the end. “With no knowledge of the theory of war, no experience in war, and no technical training, Lincoln, by the power of his mind, became a fine strategist,” wrote military historian T. Harry Williams. “He was a better natural strategist than were most of the trained soldiers.” Lehrman describes how through “hard study and analysis of the geography of battle,” in part by borrowing military books from the Library of Congress, Lincoln mastered the skills of a strategist.

Lincoln also understood that the ultimate goal of war is to impose one’s will on an enemy to achieve a political objective, not a military one. For example, he appointed “political” generals from both parties to consolidate bipartisan Northern Democratic and Republican leadership behind his strategic goal of national reunification. Some critics rebuked Lincoln for such appointments, but this criticism was “grounded in a narrow concept of military strategy,” argued historian James M. McPherson. “But Lincoln made … [these] appointments for reasons of national strategy,” to pick generals from important constituencies in the North, whose support was necessary for the war effort.

Critically, Lincoln did not follow the deeply flawed orthodoxy that, in wartime democracies, political leaders should define a military operation’s objectives and then step back to give the armed forces total control to prosecute the war effort. The president was intimately involved in military affairs throughout the war, insisting on receiving “raw” intelligence and up-to-date military information from the battlefield. He would patiently challenge, debate, and question his generals’ views but would almost never overturn their proposals in the end. He often delegated tactical decisions to local commanders, opting to set broad strategic objectives and let military leaders find a path to get there. In other words, he found the right balance for civil-military relations in war.

Certain traits made Lincoln a successful statesman and leader for the ages — work ethic, ambition, self-confidence, and courage (both moral and physical) were among the most important. The president was also a good listener, enjoyed the love and loyalty of his rank-and-file soldiers, and had incredible wit and political acumen. Above all, Lincoln had wisdom and moral clarity.

Lincoln, the restrained but iron-willed president, fought to abolish slavery and preserve the Union, to show that the American experiment could work, that free society — government of, by, and for the people — could endure. Without Lincoln, the United States would have likely remained divided. The advancement of free, democratic states would have had a severe, perhaps insurmountable, setback. The US would have been humiliated and immeasurably weakened, and slavery would have continued. What would have happened in the next century’s two world wars, for example, if America was fractured, unable to summon its full strength?

Yes, it is fair to say that, even today, there is much that Lincoln can still teach us — especially in a time of crisis.

Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt