What does it take to make a U.S. president lead effectively in a crisis? Turning to the past can help to answer the question.
Eric Foner, a leading U.S. historian, has edited a collection of new essays on the 16th president’s heroic and tragic life and times, Our Lincoln: new perspectives on Lincoln and his world (W.W. Norton, 2008). The writers look well past the obvious to flesh out intriguing relations among and between the forces that shaped Lincoln’s leadership.
James M. McPherson explores Lincoln’s efforts “to convert a strategy of liberating slaves to weaken the Confederacy into a policy of abolishing slavery as a war aim second in importance to preserving the Union.” With only state militia to wage war at the start, he faced quite a dilemma. Lincoln opted to appoint “political generals” to help expand the ranks of the Union army. Later, he dealt with the battlefield miscues these generals created confronting Southern forces.
Today, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cry out for a president who can learn from past policy failures. That ability was one of Lincoln’s strengths. Shedding more light on his learning curve is Mark E. Neely, Jr., who analyzes new documents on Lincoln’s wartime actions and thought around civil liberties, democracy and the military.
President Andrew Jackson’s wartime record influenced Lincoln, writes Sean Wilentz, to merge ideas of masculinity with national unity and anti-slavery. One purpose was to “deflect attacks on his own conduct.”
Harold Holzer reveals further nuances of Lincoln’s through his imagery in paintings, photography and sculpture. In ways big and small, he was the first “New Media” president. Then and now, constant technological change alters how presidents communicate with citizens, with the digital revolution helping to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. into office.
Catherine Clinton details Lincoln’s gender relations. Crucially, he learned empathy from the women in his life as a youth and an adult, a quality Americans and foreigners would gain from in the new U.S. president’s leadership.
James Oakes helps us to grasp Lincoln’s balancing of citizenship rights, states’ rights and black rights, which he analyzed and adapted them to real-time events. On that note, citizen pressure could help President Obama to address rising class and racial inequality, symbolized by the disproportionately black and Latino U.S. prison population.
Foner and Manisha Sinha’s essays focus on Lincoln’s visions of race and slavery in relation to the social movements of his time. Foner sheds light on Lincoln’s view that making African Americans emigrate from the U.S. to foreign shores was a solution to racial equality. The inter-racial and mixed-gender abolitionists rejected that policy, and convinced him of his error. This is a lesson about grass-roots democracy for today, as a new generation of Americans seeks “change” in the White House. This is an institution, after all, that steers the ship of state to comfort the comfortable. A recent example is the execs and shareholders of big banks who are receiving hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars for bankrupting their firms.
Andrew Delbanco focuses on the literary style, spoken and written, of Lincoln, eloquent “on behalf of equality as he understood it.” Steeped in Shakespeare, a master rhetorician, Lincoln showed a firm grasp of his audiences’ hunger for stability in an era of social fragility.
Then, this desire for stable ground also had a religious bent, Richard Carwardine writes. Thus, Lincoln responded to such yearning with biblical rhetoric, foreshadowing, perhaps, today’s heated politics of “personal values.”
Notably, “another Illinoisan has surprised many Americans who never thought they would find hope in politics again,” Delbanco writes. What millions of citizens who voted for President Obama in hope for a better quality of life do politically when their aspirations do not materialize looms large.
David W. Blight wraps up in an essay titled “The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics, and Memory.” Such misuse of his legacy by the GOP from 1964 to the present has not fooled African Americans, who have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in presidential elections. The tragedy in this trend, of course, is that the two parties in the U.S. winner-take-all political system have become more similar in their domestic and foreign policies.
Americans have a national identity in large part that turns to a president for direction during a crisis. The essays in Our Lincoln remind us of his legacy, crucially shaped by vibrant social forces, in forming that collective outlook.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento firstname.lastname@example.org