Last weekend I finished Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Team of Rivals. The book follows Lincoln and his presidential cabinet through the Civil War, outlining the political and military crises that faced the administration.
By the end of the book it’s clear: Lincoln’s abilities as leader and manager are what steered the country through its period of civil strife. Few could have lead the country through the war with the Union intact; none but Lincoln could have done so while winning a constitutional ban against slavery.
In the century and a half since, Lincoln has been immortalized as a moral compass for humanity. In the words of Tolstoy, “the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar, or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years… as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”
All of this adoration is justified; Lincoln is, without a doubt, one of the greatest people to ever live. But what Goodwin does so well in Team of Rivals is sift through the myth of Lincoln to uncover the actual day-to-day behaviors that led to his eternal success. In doing so, she shows that it wasn’t just Lincoln’s moral strength and character that saved the Union -- it was his supreme intelligence and empathy, and his ability to navigate the faction-ridden political landscape of the mid-19th century.
Here are a few of Lincoln’s defining character traits that emerge over the course of Team of Rivals.
- He took the blame. The North did a lot of losing in the early years of the war. There was plenty of blame to dish. Throughout all of it, Lincoln consistently stepped to the forefront and took the blame, even if it wasn’t his to claim. He didn't hold grudges. “A man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him.”
- He didn’t write angry emails (letters.) After a snafu by one of his Union generals, Lincoln drafted a note. “Before sending the letter, which he knew would leave [the general] disconsolate, Lincoln held back, as he often did when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle.”
- He kept an even keel. One cabinet member noted that “verbal arguments with Lincoln were like throwing water on a duck’s back.” The President always kept his cool in heated moments, which led cabinet members to make their case in writing (and not in verbal outbursts) when seeking an agenda in the administration. A good outcome.
- He was funny. There were moments during the war when the mood in the White House was notably grim. Throughout Team of Rivals, there are examples of Lincoln easing this collective anxiety through stories and humor. In one example, John Hay, one of Lincoln’s advisors, recalls a morning when the President woke up “and related a peculiarly pleasant dream. He was at a party and overheard one of the guests call him ‘a very common-looking man.’ In the dream, he relished his reply: ‘The Lord prefers Common-looking people that is the reason he makes so many of them.’ His dreamed response still amused him as he recalled it the next day.”
Just a few Lincoln logs for guidance in our own day-to-days.