Feb. 25, 2002
By Bailey Thomson
February slips away, I want to say a few words about my favorite president,
Abraham Lincoln. No other chief executive, with the possible exception of
Franklin D. Roosevelt, ever matched Lincoln’s
ability to communicate and then motivate citizens to follow.
Had fate not brought this gangly politician with a homespun accent to the
White House, the United States might be two separate nations today. The
Union’s victory in the Civil War was not a given—despite
the North’s overwhelming material advantages. Indeed, a lesser president
would have sued for peace after the carnage of 1862, when casualties from
history’s first modern conflict reached unimaginably bloody levels.
Lincoln succeeded because he
presented great ideas with clarity and humility. He could turn virtually
any occasion into a teaching moment, as he did at the Gettysburg
battlefield on Nov. 19, 1863, where more than 50,000 Americans had fallen
a few months earlier.
How could any words make sense of such slaughter? Lincoln’s response was that the living owed the dead assurance
their sacrifice would lead to a new birth of freedom and “that government
of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this
In a speech that had just 285 words, Lincoln expressed not only the nation’s gratitude for the soldiers’
sacrifice but also its determination to fulfill the great vision behind
the American experiment. It was for the living to dedicate themselves
to the great unfinished work of democracy, he said..
Lincoln made another magnificent brief speech on March 4, 1865,
at his second inaugural. The bloody war was close to ending. The president’s
success had silenced most of his severe critics. And Congress had passed
an amendment to end slavery forever. A lesser leader would have used that
occasion to remind his countrymen of all he had done for them. But not Lincoln. Instead, he spoke of binding the nation’s wounds, while
finishing the work at hand.
The great purpose ahead, he said, was to “achieve and
cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves,
and with all nations.” Those words foreshadowed the reconciliation of the
two warring sections and the hope for democracy everywhere.
We need Lincoln’s words to remind us why we are Americans. We also
need him to show us how a real leader acts and sounds.
In his little book “Lincoln on Leadership,” Donald T. Phillips writes that the
president formed a moral compact with the people. He made them participants
in a great effort, and they responded by trusting his honesty and integrity.
“It is the leader’s role,” Phillips observes,” to lift
followers out of their everyday selves up to a higher level of awareness,
motivation, and commitment.” In the language of contemporary management,
the great leader must set--and respond to—the goals and values that motivate
those who follow.
Such clarity of purpose and vision may seem unlikely
in today’s cacophony of public messages. Politicians are more inclined to
follow voters rather than lead them to some higher ground. But leadership
remains as possible today as it was in Lincoln’s
time, provided the leader knows where he or she wants to go and has the
courage to get there.
Public speaking was for Lincoln the way to move the people forward. He never left to
chance what he wanted to say. He crafted each speech to perfection, practiced
it and then delivered it flawlessly. With his words, he gave meaning to
the actions he advocated. And it is the meaning we remember when we recite
his great words.
An anthology of Lincoln’s
speeches notes that Frederick Douglass, the former slave who had worked
to free his people, visited the White House after the Second Inaugural Address.
Caught up in the emotion of victory, Douglass called Lincoln’s short speech a “sacred effort.”
To which the Great Emancipator replied in typical modesty,
“I am glad you liked it.”
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