Lincoln: The Political Genius, Continued

American Icons, People
on January 8, 2006

More from American Profile’s interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln about the choices and decisions Abraham Lincoln made during his presidency.

AP: Do you think that a president in modern times could forge a working cabinet from individuals with different opinions from his or her own—the way that Lincoln was able to bring together his former rivals?

DKG: It’s much less likely. Campaigns nowadays are so much more personal, vindictive and harsh, and the feelings that come out of them, after one person wins, are much less able to be forgiven. Everything that somebody says about the other person is captured in print and on television. You have to live with the fact that the media is going to show it again.

The way Lincoln’s cabinet members talked when they were upset with each other, which we know today from their letters and diaries—that would inevitably leak today too. So it’s not just that the cabinet members were his rivals, but they were rivals of one another. Somehow Lincoln was able to give each one of them a sense of respect and affection so that they connected to him even as they were upset with one another.

AP: At the beginning of the war, Lincoln was intimately involved in war strategy and tactics—in part because his generals in command of the Army of the Potomac seemed paralyzed in the face of their opponent, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Why did Lincoln micromanage the war rather than simply fire his generals as soon as they refused to follow his suggestions?

DKG: The whole role of the commander-in-chief hadn’t been fully formed at that point. It wasn’t clear that a president really had control over the generals. Everything was still so young in the formation of our democracy. I think Lincoln saw a problem and thought, “The best way for me to do it is to step in.”

But then you’re right—he saw that Gen. George McClellan was a problem. I think this was one of those places where Lincoln’s strength became a weakness because he kept McClellan on just hoping that somehow he would turn around. To be fair to Lincoln, he didn’t know who could organize the army as well as McClellan, and he saw that McClellan had a popular hold and the soldiers really loved him. And that weighed heavily with Lincoln. But he finally came to the idea, as he said later, that McClellan was great at creating an engine, but it was a stationary engine. It wasn’t going anywhere.

AP: And then after McClellan, he seemed to move through generals more quickly.

DKG: That’s right, until he finally got Ulysses Grant. You wonder what would have happened if Grant had been the first person. The war might have been much shorter. After Grant became lieutenant general in March 1864, Lincoln didn’t need to intrude because he trusted Grant’s judgment.

But even then, he still visited the soldiers. It seems that every time a battle was lost or a difficult battle was fought, he got enormous solace from going to the front to talk to the soldiers, to help with their morale. Then, in turn, his morale was always boosted, because the soldiers would be in good spirits seeing him. He’d go back feeling buoyed by the experience.

That’s not something that our modern leaders have done in that same way. It’s much harder today, given security concerns and given that wars are fought farther away than this war was. It was a great thing that he did that, almost instinctively, as soon as he heard about a loss in a battle.

AP: Now it’s not a loss that would draw a leader to the front so much as a victory.

DKG: Exactly, and the photo opp that it would represent. And yet obviously if you’re with your soldiers after they’ve experienced something really difficult, they’re never going to forget that. It was so moving to me to find out that in the 1864 presidential election, eight out of 10 soldiers voted for Lincoln. That mattered so much to him.

AP: Even while the war was being fought, Lincoln proposed a plan for Reconstruction that was much more lenient with the South than the plan many in Congress proposed. Why was he so magnanimous with his enemies?

DKG: It was a part of his temperament, always to feel empathy toward opposing sides. Even in the 1850s, when he was giving his anti-slavery speeches, he would say, “If the South did not have slavery now, they would not introduce it. If we in the North had slavery, we wouldn’t know how to get rid of it.”

But what he was trying to save was something he thought even larger than emancipation, even larger than just the Union. What the Union meant to him was this democratic experiment. If the South broke away, then the West might break away from the East, and anarchy might reign. Everyone in the world would say, “Well, it doesn’t work to have ordinary people governing themselves. We have to have dictatorships, we have to have kings or monarchies.” I think what he wanted was to bring the South back as swiftly as possible, so long as the rights of the blacks were protected, so that the country could start healing itself. So it was both a personal instinct and a political understanding that the more magnanimous he could be, then the shorter the healing process.

AP: Do you think that there are leaders today who share character traits with Lincoln—his empathy, his sense of humor, political genius?

DKG: First of all, there’s probably no one like Abraham Lincoln. And the times helped to create the greatness as well, so it seems almost unfair to compare a modern person with him.

But I’m not sure that the political system today fosters the development of that kind of empathy and ability to look at the other side. The people who win in the primaries are often on the more activist side of either party. When you think about the kind of debates that we have now and the whole crossfire mentality of our political press. The kind of people who make it onto television now are not usually the ones who see both sides, but the ones who can argue one side versus the other because they have that sound-bite.

Visit for information on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.