Aristotle claimed that courage is the means between cowardice and temerity or excessive confidence. Great leaders model such courage, and this quality was on display in President Abraham Lincoln’s life.
This is my fourth and final post in a series running up to the U.S. Presidential election on the qualities of leadership that President Lincoln modeled. The basis for my reflections results from my reading of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, winner of the Lincoln Prize.
Lincoln did not allow public opinion to sway and alter his convictions, but he did have to account for it as a democratically elected leader. Regarding the importance of accounting for public opinion rather than steamrolling ahead in what I would consider excessive confidence, Goodwin recounts:
Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion. “with public sentiment, nobody can fail; without it nothing can succeed,” he said. “Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statues or pronounces decisions” (206).
Later Goodwin argues:
All his life, Lincoln had exhibited an exceptionally sensitive grasp of the limits set by public opinion. As a politician, he had an intuitive sense of when to hold fast, when to wait, and when to lead. “It is my conviction,” Lincoln later said, “that, had the [Emancipation] proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it” (501-502).
It’s not that Lincoln waited idly by, but rather sought to guide and change public opinion given its import for democratic governance. Even so, there was a limit to what Lincoln would do in his political ambitions. Faced with the real possibility that he might not win reelection, Lincoln did not alter his convictions even if it meant defeat. And if defeat were imminent, which at one point appeared likely, he was determined to do as much as possible to effect change in keeping with his ideals that shaped his convictions and transcended his own personal ambition for public office.
The “extraordinary pressures” he faced revealed “much about his character, according to Goodwin. Although Lincoln had “the common pride of humanity to wish my past four years administration endorsed,” and although he felt he was the most able person to lead the country through the perilous war, he would try his best to unify the country and bring as many slaves to freedom as possible before losing reelection (648). His goals ever remained: the union and freedom for all (651). Both goals stemmed from what he told an Ohio regimen of soldiers fighting to realize these ideals:
“I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House, he said. “I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright…. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel” (653).
No doubt, Lincoln’s courage of conviction and twin goals and ideals swayed a great host of people, including among the troops. Lincoln’s political opponents failed to grasp that even though his rival in the U.S. Presidential race, General George McClellan, was admired by many soldiers, that paled in comparison to the “almost mystical devotion” they felt to Father Abraham. And so, they voted to continue the war for union and freedom for all (666).
Perhaps these soldiers also knew that Lincoln was equally committed to them to go down with them, just as they were willing to sacrifice for him and for the transcendent ideals he lived out before their eyes: “I would rather be defeated with the soldier vote behind me than to be elected without it” (664).
In the minds of some, Lincoln was painstakingly slow to weigh positions and come to a conclusion, but once he did decide, he was immovable. As he told Frederick Douglass, “I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it” (Goodwin, 552).
There’s no question that Lincoln was a politician and not a prophet, even though there was certainly a prophetic element in his public political theology as President. Prophets like Jeremiah of old do not have to account for opinion polls in any way. They simply speak forth the word of the Lord. But democratically elected officials must seek to sway public opinion to match their convictions. It is for the betterment of the country that Lincoln’s own convictions transcended his ego and great lifelong pursuit and passion to be esteemed as a great leader. His grand and noble ideals of union and freedom for a democracy of the people and by the people and for the people shaped him at a far deeper level than personal ambition. No doubt, this deeper passion played a key factor in why he could be magnanimous among his team of rivals and in the face of so much criticism and hostility aimed at his person (Refer here to the first post in this series for a discussion of his magnanimous spirit).
Courage of conviction marks great leaders. They do not fall prey to either extreme of weak or poor leaders: those marked by cowardice where one’s convictions shift with the changing wind of public opinion; and those marked by excessive confidence or temerity that leaves them ill-prepared to withstand political and cultural tempests. What is needed more than ever today are leaders with courage of conviction shaped by transcendent ideals benefiting all people: union and freedom. Such ideals lead them to try and shape public opinion for the common good rather than popularity contests for their own good. Lincoln was such a leader. What kind of leaders do you and I vote for and what kind of leader do you and I seek to be in our own spheres of influence?