Randall M. Miller, ed. Lincoln and Leadership: Military, Political, and Religious Decision Making. North's Civil War Series. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. xiv + 135 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-4344-0; $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-4345-7.
Reviewed by David K. Thomson (University of Georgia)
Published on H-CivWar (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz (Eastern Illinois University)
The Myriad Forms of Abraham Lincoln’s Leadership
To say that the historiography on Abraham Lincoln is voluminous is one of the larger understatements in Civil War scholarship. Thousands of books have been devoted to studies of Lincoln; Lincoln as commander in chief, the Lincoln Douglas Debates, Lincoln’s relationships with his wife and sons, and even Lincoln’s beard have been topics of scholarly inquiry. For many, there may be a Lincoln saturation that calls for fewer works on the man, yet examinations continue to emerge, especially in the wake of the bicentennial of his birth and the election (and now reelection) of another lawyer from Illinois to the office of the presidency. In fact, it was the confluence of these two events that led to a symposium at the Union League of Philadelphia in 2009 entitled “Lincoln and Leadership.” This event brought three eminent scholars to Philadelphia to relate how Lincoln exhibited leadership in his roles as wartime commander in chief, the leader of the Republican Party, and a moral leader for the country. What results is an edited work that offers a strong examination of Lincoln’s various leadership roles during the war and their larger ramifications.
In the introduction to Lincoln and Leadership: Military, Political, and Religious Decision Making, editor Randall M. Miller provides a broad overview of Lincoln’s leadership. Miller uses Lincoln’s evolving notion of Union during the war—particularly as it pertained to the prospect of emancipation—to offer a window into Lincoln’s role as chief executive and emancipator. While Miller’s narrative regarding Lincoln and emancipation is well-trod soil—from Lincoln’s revocation of John Fremont and David Hunter’s emancipation edicts, to his infamous letter to Horace Greely in August 1862, to his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation just one month later—he nevertheless makes it clear that Lincoln’s actions against the institution of slavery served the primary role of maintaining the Union. Miller also makes it abundantly clear that the war was always the chief concern for Lincoln, noting that Lincoln “seemed hardly to worry about other domestic issues … and he left domestic policy almost wholly to his Cabinet members and Congress to manage” (p. 15). Furthermore, Miller describes how Lincoln used his leadership position in an effort to bring Democrats into the war effort—most notably, Andrew Johnson as his vice president for the 1864 presidential campaign. With this broad overview, Miller briefly introduces the various contributors to this collection and the different approaches they take to address three of Lincoln’s leadership qualities.
Gregory Urwin’s chapter entitled “Sowing the Wind and Reaping the Whirlwind: Abraham Lincoln as a War President” introduces the reader to a president deeply ensconced in the daily minutia of military operations, while also acting in a capacity to curtail civil liberties for the sake of national security—oftentimes in gross violation of the law. Yet as Urwin points out (consistent with the findings of historian Mark Neely [The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, 1992]) Lincoln did not necessarily wield these powers arbitrarily but used them in heavily contested regions of the North and border states where he grew concerned over political strife that hindered the war effort. Yet for the plaudits that Urwin directs at Lincoln for his wartime actions, he does contest the notion that Lincoln grew a better judge of military character as the war progressed. While acknowledging that Lincoln did indeed bring Ulysses S. Grant East, he also notes that Lincoln nevertheless stuck Grant with several problematic “political generals,” such as Fritz Sigel, Benjamin Butler, and Nathanial Banks, and often interjected his voice into military decisions much to the detriment of Grant. Lincoln’s second guessing of career military officers and altering of plans led to significant tension at times between Lincoln and the Union Army upper command. According to Urwin, this is an often-overlooked legacy of Lincoln’s military leadership—and something that should not be forgotten.
Matthew Pinsker’s essay “Seeing Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum” examines a single document from August 23, 1864, known as the blind memorandum signed by seven cabinet members pledging their support for the impending Democratic administration assuming Lincoln’s failure in the fall 1864 presidential election. It is known as the blind memorandum because the members of the cabinet signed the piece of paper with Executive Mansion letterhead without seeing the contents on the reverse side. For Pinsker, the blind memorandum provides “a useful opportunity to showcase both the full range of Lincoln’s political skills and also the depth of his principles” (p. 63). The memorandum, Pinsker argues, truly reveals the political acumen of Lincoln especially as it pertained to his cabinet and the fact that he demanded such an explosive pledge that remained unknown to these men until after Lincoln’s reelection. Furthermore, the lasting legacy of the blind memorandum shows the tense political realities of the summer of 1864 and Lincoln’s insistence on ignoring the vast criticism of others to stay the course and maintain his principles. At the potential cost of his own electoral defeat, Lincoln insisted that the presidential election must go on in the fall of 1864 and the administration’s commitment to the antislavery cause be not in doubt. This, according to Pinsker, is the true legacy of the blind memorandum and a reflection of one “of the most inspiring examples of popular sovereignty in American history” (p. 77).
Finally, Harry Stout’s essay, “Abraham Lincoln as Moral Leader: The Second Inaugural as America’s Sermon to the World,” also highlights a single event from Lincoln’s presidency—his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865. From the outset, Stout makes it clear that Lincoln’s address is much better understood as a sermon, one that rivals the work of key theologian Jonathan Edwards, as both the Second Inaugural and “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” dealt with “guilty Americans in the hands of an angry and vengeful God” (p. 79). As Stout astutely points out, Lincoln’s emphasis on the nation’s collective guilt as it pertained to slavery is the true driving point of his address—a claim that enabled Lincoln to emphasize the possibility of national reconciliation moving forward. Stout is at his best when he gets to the central tenet of Lincoln’s religious ideology (and moral leadership). For Lincoln and nineteenth-century Americans, there was a highly evangelical culture structured around a providential God “actively involved in orchestrating the affairs of humankind for His mysterious ends” (p. 87). Lincoln adhered to a providential design, but one far more inscrutable than typically offered in the wartime North. Various speeches that Lincoln gave throughout the summer and fall of 1862 spoke to God’s role in the conflict and culminated in his Second Inaugural Address. For Lincoln, “his God was the God of the Old Testament and the Hebrew chosen people. But if he was not a Christ lover, he knew Christ’s rhetoric well and adopted it as his own” (p. 92). In this vein, Stout puts forward his belief that the Second Inaugural was Lincoln’s greatest speech and demonstrates how Lincoln and his generation saw the United States in a domestic and international context.
Taken as a whole these three essays (and Allen Guelzo’s afterword) offer the reader insight into the three fundamental areas that shaped Lincoln’s presidency: military leader, party leader, and moral leader of an imperiled nation. Yet one cannot help but think that to garner a true appreciation of Lincoln this collection would have benefited from a deeper examination of Lincoln’s broader presidential actions, especially as they pertained to his larger domestic leadership as well as position as head of state on issues of international importance. While Miller and Urwin dismiss Lincoln’s domestic actions as president (aside from some brief references to civil liberties issues and the case of Clement Vallandigham), this narrative in reality is far more complicated. Lincoln and his administration had to navigate matters that included a broad transformation of federal fiscal policy, other realms of internal dissent in the occupied border South, and the question of slavery almost from the onset of hostilities. In all these areas, Lincoln was ever mindful of what was at stake and in tune with the questions at hand. Additionally, Lincoln also had to contend with the issue of international recognition of the Confederacy and the Union’s place in an international context. A fuller examination of these issues would have more fully rounded out Lincoln’s leadership role.
This minor reservation aside, Lincoln and Leadership offers a fairly cohesive examination of the myriad leadership roles taken on by the nation’s sixteenth president and provides further proof that even in this day of a deluge of Lincoln works, there is still room for reexaminations of Lincoln’s presidency and the larger legacy it has left nearly one hundred and fifty years on.
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David K. Thomson. Review of Miller, Randall M., ed., Lincoln and Leadership: Military, Political, and Religious Decision Making.
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