Lincoln the Wise: Delegation and Character in a Time of War

Lincoln’s presidential nomination at the Republican party convention in 1860 took many by surprise, including his three primary rivals at that convention: William H. Seward, Edward Bates, and Salmon P. Chase.

The country lawyer and failed senate candidate did not have the pedigree of other candidates. However, he also didn’t have their political baggage. As a moderate he became the primary second choice of virtually all other candidates’ detractors. When one candidate faltered, their supporters coalesced around Honest Abe. So it went, in an age when candidates did not campaign for themselves but made their case through surrogates, Lincoln emerged as the first presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party.

There is so much I learned while reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book was as informative as it was inspiring, and it has taken me a few weeks to wrap my head around its impact on my perceptions of Lincoln, his team of rivals, and the Civil War.

A recurring theme throughout the book is many people’s love for Lincoln. He inspired admiration with comedic anecdotes and firm, logical arguments. By the end, when the inevitable occurred, I felt more anguish and sorrow than I ever have after reading a book, because I too had come to love and admire our 16th president.

I wrote to a friend:

Lincoln is dead

…and confessed to shedding a tear or two.

But, thankfully, Lincoln’s memory lives on, and his deeds have become legend. I would like to share two stories from the book. Well, two and a half.

Lincoln and Stanton

Edwin M. Stanton, U.S. Secretary of War, 1862-1867, 1868

Edwin M. Stanton, U.S. Secretary of War, 1862-1867, 1868

Despite occasional difficulties with his health, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton worked tirelessly to run the army during the Civil War. Hardened by family tragedies, Stanton was your “no BS” type of guy, and he was greatly respected by Lincoln.

He is the rock on the beach of our national ocean against which the breakers dash and roar, dash and roar without ceasing.
— Abraham Lincoln, speaking of Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

Lincoln and Stanton did not seem to have a deep personal relationship, but they did have a very good working relationship. Goodwin describes the existence of “an unwritten code between the two powerful men: ‘Each could veto the other’s acts, but Lincoln was to rule when he felt it necessary.’”

One time, two congressmen obtained Lincoln’s approval for a military appointment for one of their friends. They took it to Stanton, expecting the President’s endorsement to mean certain success, but Stanton refused! He told the congressmen that the position was important and he already had “a man of suitable experience” in mind to fill it.

When the congressmen walked back to the White House to discuss the matter with the President, they met a reticent executive:

Mr. Stanton is right and I cannot wrongly interfere with him.

Lincoln wisely respected the knowledge and experience of his Secretary of War, enough to allow Stanton’s decisions to overrule his own. He had the humility to rely on his team for their expertise, to delegate tasks and authority as often as he could.

This delegation of responsibility often took a toll on Lincoln’s cabinet, which I imagine, in comparison with Lincoln’s burden as President, forged a bond between them all.

Stanton felt this toll one time in particular, and I hope Mrs. Goodwin and her publishers will approve of me sharing some quotes and my favorite paragraph in the book:

A clerk recalled finding Stanton one night in his office, “the mother, wife, and children of a soldier who had been condemned to be shot as a deserter, on their knees before him pleading for the life of their loved one. He listened standing, in cold and austere silence, and at the end of the heart-breaking sobs and prayers answered briefly that the man must die. The crushed and despairing little family left and Mr. Stanton turned, apparently unmoved, and walked into his private room.” The clerk thought Stanton an unfeeling tyrant, until he discovered him moments later, “leaning over a desk, his face buried in his hands and his heavy frame shaking with sobs. ‘God help me to do my duty; God help me to do my duty!’ he was repeating in a low wail of anguish.”

Even the most hardened men feel great pain. Lincoln knew this, personally, and understood the value of his Secretary of War’s capability for empathy just as much as his work ethic and dedication.

Lincoln and Douglass

Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist, b. 1818 - d. 1895

Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist, b. 1818 - d. 1895

After Lincoln was inaugurated for the second time, there was a public reception at the White House. Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, had attended the inauguration but was refused admittance at the door of the White House by two guards following previous protocol to not admit blacks. Upon recognizing a gentleman going in, Douglass “asked him to tell the president that he was unable to gain entry. Minutes later, the word came back to admit Douglass.”

Lincoln had met with Douglass previously in private. However, this was different. This was a very public setting in a time when slavery had just been abolished, and racism was a big part of American society.

Douglass would always remember the events of that evening.
— Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

When Lincoln, standing tall above the crowd in the East Room of the White House, spotted Frederick Douglass, he called out loudly so everyone could hear him, “Here comes my friend Douglass,” and proceeded to ask the abolitionist’s opinion of his second inaugural address. For a president to hold a public conversation with a black man, in the White House no less, was remarkable. Goodwin gives the impression that this had simply never happened before.

Lincoln’s conduct towards Frederick Douglass, in treating him as any other man, inspired Douglass to dedicate the Emancipation Memorial (also known as the Freedmen’s Monument) to the memory of Abraham Lincoln in 1876.

Though high in position, the humblest could approach him and feel at home in his presence. Though deep, he was transparent; though strong, he was gentle; though decided and pronounced in his convictions, he was tolerant towards those who differed from him, and patient under reproaches.
— Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln, at the Unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., 1876

According to Goodwin, whether Lincoln believed in the full equality of black men or not is unclear (note: Women’s equality was hardly discussed at all).

What does seem clear, however, is Lincoln’s equanimity and openness. He welcomed all opinions, enjoyed good conversation, and, regardless of a person’s race or position in society, attempted to give them his full attention and consideration.

Today, when people dismiss others based on superficial identifying factors (say, political party or line of work), it would be wise to remember we once had a President, the highest office in government, who tried to serve rather than dominate, and welcomed all into his home.