Our president

What does it take to make a president lead effectively in crisis? As Illinois sends another tall, lean leader to helm the United States through troubled times, turning to the past may offer some answers to that question.

Eric Foner, a top American historian, has edited a collection of new essays on our 16th president’s heroic—and tragic—life and times. The writers look well past the obvious to flesh out intriguing relations in 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, Lincoln faced quite a dilemma. He opted to appoint “political generals” to help expand the ranks of the Union army. Later, he dealt with the battlefield miscues these generals created.

Today, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cry out for a president who can learn lessons from such policy failures. That ability was one of Lincoln’s strengths. Shedding more light on his learning curve, Mark E. Neely Jr.’s essay 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.” Lincoln’s use of a past president to justify current policies has been a recurrent theme at the White House.

Harold Holzer reveals further nuances of Lincoln’s through his imagery in paintings, photography and sculpture. Then and now, new technology changed how presidents communicate with citizens. 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 internationals will also benefit from in our next 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 to real-time events. Studying such dexterity could certainly help the president-elect to address rising class and racial inequality, symbolized by the disproportionately black and Latino U.S. prison population.

Foner’s 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 evolving view of making African-Americans emigrate from the United States as a solution to racial equality. The interracial and mixed-gender abolitionists rejected that policy and convinced Lincoln of his error. This is a lesson about democracy for today, as a new generation of Americans seeks “change” in the White House.

Andrew Delbanco focuses on the literary style, spoken and written, of Lincoln, a “president whose eloquence on behalf of equality as he understood it” showed a firm grasp of his audiences’ hunger for stability in an era of fragility. This desire for stable ground also had a religious bent, Richard Carwardine writes, which Lincoln responded to 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.

David W. Blight wraps up in an essay titled “The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics and Public 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.

Our national identity is, in large part, such that we turn to a president for direction during a crisis. The essays in Our Lincoln remind us, as the bicentennial of his birth approaches, of Lincoln’s legacy in forming that collective outlook.