Term in Office: 16th president, 1861-1865
Home State: Illinois
At long last, we have clawed our way to the conclusion of this countdown, which I began almost exactly two years ago today with an assessment of the man at the exact middle of my rankings, John Quincy Adams. You might have guessed, perhaps by process of elimination, that Abraham Lincoln would rest at the top of the list. It is not the most original choice I could have made, but I believe it is the soundest.
Given that this is the summation and conclusion of this project, I feel the need to demonstrate how Lincoln was not just a great president, but points toward the a kind of model of what a good president might look like. You might have noticed that our six or seven top presidents in my ranking broadly shared certain sets of qualities: they chose good subordinates, they mixed self-awareness with a willingness to listen and change their mind when necessary, they played a long game, and they were willing to consider novel ways of solving a problem, and they had some measure of sympathy toward the less fortunate and a sense of obligation to help them. Conversely, Lincoln also averred and renounced many of the qualities we see in the very worst presidents in our countdown: the malice of Jackson, the callousness of Coolidge, the “true neutral” ethics of Buchanan. So, let’s look at some of the elements that made Lincoln stand out from the pack.
The first quality, I think, has to be moral vision. Lincoln had the self-possession to commit to a couple of major goals: the preservation of the Union, and the idea of free labor. While deeply opposed to slavery on a personal level, his principal goal was to merely limit its expansion westward, where it might interfere with those free labor prerogatives of white settlers. To wit, much of Lincoln’s conduct as president might be seen as a battle between his civic certainty of union and his moral certainty of slavery’s wrongness. In the end, as we will see, he was able to reconcile these two very different goals. The point of this is simply that Lincoln had humanitarian principles that stood as the cornerstone of his worldview–in fact, they were so important to him that he was willing to use cheap parliamentary tricks and test the limits of his constitutional authority to see them through.
A willingness to learn. Lincoln came into office with a relatively meager curriculum vitae. Aside from deep ties to Illinois state politics, he served a grand total of one term in the Congress as an anti-war legislator. (Is this sounding like anyone else you might know?) His military career was limited to six-weeks of militia service in the Black Hawk War that he often characterized as a farcical exploit in later years. While in some ways, this lack of establishment ties gave Lincoln the freedom and creativity to search out other solutions, he knew he still needed education in some of the essentials and made himself into an expert on military tactics over the course of the war. Often, it was a matter of planting his butt down and reading books on the subject for hours on end.
A desire to improve his country. As much as Lincoln’s presidency must rightly center around the Civil War that engulfed nearly all of it, we must also recognize his singular role in the development of the United States with respect to internal improvements and western settlements. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that he was the Henry Clay presidency that we never had. Like a good Whig, he saw better education, better infrastructure, creating greater opportunities rather than exerting Jeffersonian minimalism in government. He thought the Whig program he adored in his young adulthood was the ticket to a more egalitarian upward mobility. And as president, he signed the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, the cornerstone for all those great midwestern state universities. We can name more accomplishments in this vein: the creation of the Department of Agriculture, the Homestead Act which helped populate the West under the auspices of free labor, and the Pacific Railway Act that envisioned a railroad spanning the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
These grandiose plans were able to coexist with his humility. The histories of Doris Kearns Goodwin are well-loved by the public, even as most historians view them skeptically due to multiple instances of plagiarism and the relatively little time that she spent in the archives. She was correct, however, in honing in on (and indeed, writing the voluminous Team of Rivals about) Lincoln’s decision to incorporate his rivals into his cabinet. There was William Seward, the first Republican governor of a big state and the man most people expected the Republicans to nominate in 1860. There was moralistic Salmon Chase, corrupt Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and his sneaky successor Edwin Stanton. Abe cleverly played these personalities- each of which thought they deserved the presidency more than Lincoln- off of each other and his willingness to have cabinet secretaries with higher star wattage than himself helped keep his new and fractious party together. Remember that the Republican Party was barely six years old when Lincoln took office and was still comprised of ex-Democrats, former Whigs, disaffected Free Soilers, and some Know-Nothing flotsam. People who are fundamentally full of themselves and enamored of their own greatness make poor presidents and poor presidential candidates, as a certain former reality television star may discover.
Lincoln also stands out for his sense of mercy. He repeatedly offered deals by which the South could enter the Union, or might achieve a less exacting reconstruction. One plan that he considered offering would have called for a gradual emancipation of slavery by the year 1900. But he was also inclined toward mercy on a smaller scale, often commuting the sentences of soldiers who had been tried for cowardice or desertion; he was able to see that a momentary fear in the face of death did not warrant extreme punishment. The president, Navy secretary Gideon Welles once complained, “is always disposed to mitigate punishment, and to grant favors.” These small acts of kindness not only showed a mature understanding of human nature, but built up reservoirs of goodwill and trust.
Ultimately, Lincoln has been parsed and picked apart more than any other figure in American history. In fact, one historian has called him “everybody’s grandfather” and a wide array of philosophies have forged their own Lincolns to fit their ideologies: Lincoln the Christ figure, Lincoln the Tyrant, Lincoln the Vampire Hunter, Homoerotic Lincoln, Racist Lincoln, Egalitarian Lincoln, Lincoln the Ur-Socialist. None of this is wrong as such (although some of those interpretations have more evidentiary merit than others), but there is still an undeniable tendency to remake Honest Abe into our own image.
Perhaps my own interpretation is similarly tinted by these accidental biases. But for my part, I’m still willing to sign off on Abraham Lincoln as America’s greatest president. At frightful cost, he kept the Union together when many would have let it become Balkanized, and he expanded freedom- true freedom- to more Americans than any president before or since. His most masterful stroke was seeing that those twin goals- union and abolition- could be used in tandem. By signing the Emancipation Proclamation and, as Spielberg’s recent Lincoln film has shown, passing the 13th Amendment ending slavery nationwide, Lincoln achieved these two goals. In doing so, he helped set the USA apart from the Confederate States, and in so doing cost the CSA crucial help from abolitionist Britain and France. Much more substantively, Lincoln helped the United States come closer to fulfilling its self-understanding as a place where freedom reigned. Even if his motives and his methods were complicated, he was the culmination of a larger movement that loosed the bonds of slavery and hopelessness and pointed us toward a rough-hewn equality. We’re still trying to get there today.