Abraham Lincoln & Oversimplified Myths of Leadership

A Viewpoint in last week’s Harbus entitled, “When Are Leaders Made?” invoked the purported qualities of Abraham Lincoln and ambiguously asserted that his qualities of leadership were formed early in life, as the writer believes is true for most people. I agree that Abraham Lincoln can be an instructive example of leadership and its formation, but I disagree with the conclusions made in last week’s article.

Historians do rank Lincoln highly, but astute historians also note the evolution of his leadership qualities and convictions during the course of his public life. Historian James Loewen in his best-selling book Lies My Teacher Told Me (used throughout this column) tells of how in one of his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln says, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races [applause] – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes.” The issue of Lincoln and race is far more complicated than the nationalist mythology of his leadership would have most people believe.

But painting Lincoln as a racist would also oversimplify the matter. In a letter to his intimate friend Josh Speed, Lincoln wrote of an 1841 experience of being on a steamboat with shackled slaves. Wrote Lincoln, “That sight was continual torment to me, and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border.”
So clearly Lincoln had complex personal feelings about race and slavery. Those feelings were also complex in his political life. Loewen quotes a famous letter from Lincoln in August 1862 to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could have it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union…I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere could be free.

Ultimately, Lincoln’s personal wishes would coincide with his political dictates, but the above statement shows that he was prepared to separate his personal values from how he discharged his “official” political duties. I’m not sure that’s a model of leadership to which all of us would aspire. It’s certainly more complex than the usual myth of Lincoln allows.

Lincoln and Reparations
Perhaps most provocatively, Lincoln made dramatic sympathetic statements about full reparations to former slaves. Also in Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen quotes Lincoln’s “towering” Second Inaugural speech:

Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled on the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

Adds Loewen, “This last is an astonishing sentence.” It sure is; Lincoln is saying that America owes a due price for its sins against African Americans, “if God wills.” Who dares say God wouldn’t?

Clearly, Abraham Lincoln is as complicated a person as any protagonist in history, or any person in our lives now, or ourselves. His leadership as we have come to know it evolved over time, from a mix of experience, political consideration, and personal conviction.

Perhaps, as last week’s column suggested, leadership qualities can’t be taught. That idea seems conventional enough. But it strikes me that teaching leadership isn’t what this institution aspires to do. Instead, through study and reflection, we search within ourselves, as Lincoln did, for the mix of experiences, convictions, and ideals to guide us in the decisions we make throughout our lives – decisions that will one day determine whether or not we ourselves are worthy of the annals of leadership history.