Lincoln: The Political Genius

American Icons, People
on January 8, 2006

Abraham Lincoln was one of our nation’s greatest political minds, and many of the decisions he made during his presidency have had an enduring influence on the country. In an interview with American Profile, Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the new book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, spoke about how the choices Lincoln made shaped the nation and continue to define its future.

AP: The title of your book, Team of Rivals, refers to the fact that after Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he chose former political opponents—including three who had run against him for the Republican Party nomination—to serve in his cabinet. Why did he do that?

DKG: The most important quality that it took to be able to do that was confidence in himself, because it would seem that by putting your former rivals into positions of power, you’re creating an opportunity for them to run against you later. He knew the country was in one of the most difficult places in its history, because the Southern states were already seceding and war might be on the horizon. He said that he needed the strongest people that he could find to be on his side. As it turned out, they all did an extraordinary job in their cabinet positions.

AP: Lincoln always believed that slavery was a moral wrong, but he didn’t call for abolition in his public statements early on. What influenced his thinking about abolition leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863?

DKG: Two things kept him from speaking out directly about emancipation earlier. First, he was conscious that even as president he did not have the power to free the slaves because the Constitution protected slavery. It was only when he came up with the understanding that emancipating the slaves was a military necessity that he could legitimately author the proclamation. He understood that the slaves were helping the Southern cause—by tending the fields so that the soldiers could go to battle, by working in the trenches, by being cooks—so that if he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and turned some of those slaves into free men, they might leave the Army and leave the Confederacy, and that would help the Northern cause.

But more importantly, he was always conscious that in a democratic nation, you have to shape public opinion and carry the public with you when you’re making an important step. He felt that if he had moved in that direction in 1861 and early 1862, he would have lost the border states and his coalition even in the North, since so many conservatives in the big cities didn’t want anything to do with emancipation.

AP: Some of Lincoln’s character traits you describe in your book are his ability to see both sides of an issue, his down-to-earth style, his sense of humor and his political acumen. What traits do you think most influenced the choices he made as president?

DKG: What I hadn’t realized as fully until I spent so much time with him in these last 10 years was his political acumen. We all know him as the Great Emancipator, as a great statesman, but he really did understand how to get things done and how to deal with people. What politics is about, after all, is relations with people. And somehow being able to not hold grudges from the past, to make friends of former enemies, to know how to deal with people when they were hurt, to acknowledge error, and to share credit—all of those qualities, which I have likened to a great emotional intelligence, made up a quite brilliant politician. The qualities we normally associate with goodness—decency, sensitivity, honesty, empathy—turned out to be great political resources.

AP: ABC News polls in 2000 and 2002 found that the American people believe Lincoln was the nation’s greatest president. Why do you believe most Americans think that, and why do you think he was, if you do?

DKG: I do. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt were critical in their own time, but people understand that the Civil War was an absolute turning point in our history, that had that war not been won and slaves emancipated, the whole future of America would have been incredibly different.

But our connection to Lincoln is much more emotional than that. There’s something about the story of Lincoln. From the time we’re young, we learn about his reading by candlelight, his mother dying when he was young, and his educating himself and scouring the countryside for books. And it’s not just that he was poor. It’s that he made himself this extraordinary figure through will, energy, persistence and failure.

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