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Lincoln and the Lesson of Leading From Behind

As Abraham Lincoln rose to deliver his first inaugural address, the nation was on the brink of war.  In the 16 weeks between his election as president and his inauguration, seven southern states seceded from the Union and formed the confederate states of America.  Lincoln’s answer was to look to the past for guidance. For his inaugural, he consulted only four documents – the Constitution as the expression of America’s aspirations; Daniel Webster’s thunderous declamation in 1830 against secession; Andrew Jackson’s 1831 proclamation dismantling the arguments for secession; and Henry Clay, whom Lincoln described as his “teacher and leader,” for his final oration in 1850 to secure a compromise that averted civil war. While putting their arguments into plainer prose, Lincoln closed his inaugural address by reminding his audience of their shared past: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Throughout his presidency, Lincoln sounded the same theme for Americans to be guided by and to honor their collective past. He sounded this theme in his short remarks commemorating the battlefield at Gettysburg, beginning with his eloquent reminder, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” to his second inaugural reminding Americans of the path the nation had endured the previous four years. Lincoln’s genius was in looking back to find the way forward.

Great presidents, like Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt, lead from behind – not thrusting themselves far ahead of the pack with the hope of its following, but being in tune, each step along the way, with a community defined by its shared common values. Lincoln’s long-time rival Stephen Douglas keenly observed that Lincoln was “a man of the atmospherics around him.”  Lincoln did not create the “atmospherics,” but studied them to discern the path forward.  Understanding the “atmospherics” of the time requires learning, as did Lincoln, from his own and others’ experiences. Though Lincoln described himself as a “Clay man,” he grew up among Democrats devoted to Clay’s great rival Jackson and honed his rhetoric on the hustings in campaign after campaign, where he learned, as he told his law partner William Herndon, how to speak “low” so that the “common people” understood his message.  He never went farther than his followers could go. 

Though Lincoln had campaigned against Jackson twice and each of the presidents who proclaimed themselves his heirs (Van Buren, Polk, and Pierce), it was Jackson’s portrait, not Clay’s, that Lincoln hung in the presidential office. Lincoln used the portrait as a prop to remind his visitors who were once Jacksonian Democrats that he would emulate Jackson, long reputed for his stubbornness and temper, in firmly opposing secessionists.  When a delegation from Baltimore pleaded with Lincoln not to use force in response to South Carolina’s threats to attack Fort Sumter, Lincoln exploded, “There is no Washington in that – no Jackson in that – no manhood nor honor in that.”

Yet, it was Henry Clay’s attitudes towards slavery, which shaped Lincoln’s determination in his one term in the House to oppose the extension of slavery but not its abolition. Echoing Clay In his first inaugural, Lincoln reassured southerners that, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists.”  Initially, Lincoln defined the war’s sole purpose as maintaining the Union.

A year later, Lincoln redefined the war’s purpose: After listening to abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Lincoln redefined the war’s purpose:  Once a man who had used the N-word regularly and opposed abolition, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing slaves in the war zone, and remarking then, “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act.”  Months later, he made the war’s new purpose even clearer in concluding his remarks consecrating the battlefield at Gettysburg, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  This last line, so familiar to Americans today, was familiar to Americans then, as it had been made decades before by Daniel Webster in nearly the same words. Lincoln led by reminding Americans of what they already knew.

Though he likened himself to Lincoln, Donald Trump never learned to lead from behind. His final days in office, from inciting insurrection to peddling pardons, revealed the problem with his presidency throughout:  Trump only heard the sycophants and angry mob that were the echo chamber of presidency.  He cut himself off, not just from reality, but from forging connections with the American community writ large. His lame attempt at leadership was to sow discord.  He governed like Jefferson Davis, the confederacy’s leader keen on rebellion, rather than Lincoln who championed unity.

President Biden understands how to lead from behind. As a candidate, he was in touch with America’s past and fundamental decency, which he embodied. In his inaugural address, Biden asked Americans to “listen” to and “respect” others, old values that now feel refreshing as Biden – and the country – yearn for a path forward. The answer, Biden said, was in our past, exemplified by Lincoln, who said, Biden noted, when signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he had “put my whole soul into it.” 

Lincoln’s portrait now hangs in the oval office. There, Lincoln shines as a mentor. Biden surely would agree with Lincoln’s final hope for ending division with “Malice toward none and charity for all,” a hope echoed in Mr. Biden’s pleas for “unity” in America, for which Lincoln gave his “last full measure.”