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2009 Lincoln Prize Winner Reflects on Lincoln and Obama

Editor’s Note: We are giving away one signed copy of Lincoln and His Admirals. The first person to email blog.us(at)oup.com will win.

It is my pleasure to announce that Craig L. Symonds is one of two winners of the 2009 Lincoln Prize for his book Lincoln and His Admirals!  Congratulations are also in order to James M. McPherson who won for Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.  Each received a generous cash award and a bronze cast of Augustus St. Gaudens‘ portrait sculpture of Abraham Lincoln (I saw the bronze cast, it is truly beautiful.)  Below is an original post from Symonds about Lincoln and Obama.  Be sure to read our other bicentennial Lincoln posts here.

The media took much notice of the fact that Barack Obama was intent on duplicating much of Abraham Lincoln’s behavior as President-Elect. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb book Team of Rivals is said to be one of the books Obama has read with great interest, and he has chosen a “Team of Rivals” for his Cabinet. Similarly, President Obama took a train from Philadelphia to Washington, duplicating part of Lincoln’s journey from Springfield to the capital in 1861. For this, Obama might have consulted Harold Holzer’s new book on Lincoln, President Elect. Others have noted that Obama has inherited what is arguably the worst national and international circumstance for a new president since Lincoln, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt. How will he apply Lincoln’s style or outlook to the problems he has inherited?

My own recent study of Lincoln has confirmed in my mind several aspects of Lincoln’s leadership style that already seem to be part of Obama’s world view, which should stand him in good stead as he considers how to manage (or end) two wars, and stabilize and then revitalize a collapsing economy.

The most obvious of these is a serenity fueled by patience and a habit of thoughtfulness. Though we tend to assume that strong presidents are proactive, controlling a situation rather than responding to it after it has happened, the fact is that Lincoln was almost never proactive. Instead he took the time to consult with his advisers often making them present their positions in short memos. He also took up the pen himself, writing down options in order to clarify them, then writing down possible solutions. Many of these “Memos to Self” were never made public and were found among his papers only after his death. He also waited to see what public opinion would tolerate, reading many newspapers, especially opposition newspapers, before making a decision. He was so patient that it sometimes looked as if the momentum of history was about to take the decision out of his hands before he acted.

Indeed, his very first crisis—what to do about Fort Sumter—found him waiting until it was almost too late. It is even possible to argue that he waited until is WAS too late. On his very first day in office he received a report from the beleaguered commander of Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, that the garrison was running out of food and that it must evacuate soon if not re-supplied. Moreover, Anderson reported that it would take twenty thousand men to re-supply him. Well, here was a conundrum. Lincoln had just promised in his inaugural address to “hold, occupy and possess” all Federal property in the South—a clear and specific reference to Fort Sumter, but there were not twenty thousand soldiers in all of the U.S. military in 1861. Like no-drama Obama, Lincoln did not panic. He met with his Cabinet and his military advisers, listened to all their input, sent scouts to Charleston to assess the situation there, and waited. By the time he sent an expedition there, Anderson’s supplies were all but exhausted. Lincoln’s patience was not a product of passivity, however. His decision to notify South Carolina State authorities that the expedition was en route deftly threw the ball into the South’s court and, when Fort Sumter was attacked, allowed the North to emerge as the aggrieved party.

Similarly, during the Trent affair, Lincoln was a master of forbearance. After Captain Charles Wilkes captured two Confederate ambassadors on the high seas, Britain responded with an ultimatum that gave the U.S. just seven days to release them and offer a public apology or face war. Again Lincoln waited, and his patience let the emotions of the moment ease allowing a solution that was both diplomatically acceptable, and politically benign. Had he responded to the ultimatum with the kind of fist-shaking defiance that would have been popular at home, it might indeed have led to war and the U.S. might be two countries today.

Even in dealing with emancipation, the most difficult problem of his administration—indeed, of American history—Lincoln showed remarkable composure which in the end led to a permanent solution. Some thought he was too patient. The abolitionists, including free blacks like Frederick Douglass, could not understand why he moved so slowly. But Lincoln knew what he was about. He moved as fast, and as efficiently, as public opinion, and the war news, would allow him to do.

Barack Obama, who has already demonstrated his patience and his pragmatism in his “no-drama” campaign, seems now to be echoing not only Lincoln’s cabinet choices and his travel route, but also his characteristic style. This bodes well for the future.

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  1. [...] An excerpt from James McPherson’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN: http://blog.oup.com/2009/02/lincoln-mcpherson/ A series of FAQ’s with Allen Guelzo author of LINCOLN: A Very Short Introduction: http://blog.oup.com/2009/02/lincoln_questions/ and http://blog.oup.com/2009/02/abraham-lincoln-faq-part-one/ and http://blog.oup.com/2009/02/lincoln_faq/ A look at how Lincoln almost failed by Jennifer Weber author of COPPERHEADS: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North: http://blog.oup.com/2009/02/lincoln_fail/ A post by Lincoln Prize Winner Craig L. Symonds comparing Lincoln and Obama: http://blog.oup.com/2009/02/lincoln_obama/ [...]

  2. [...] The first blogpost of note was written by Craig L. Symonds.  You may have heard Symonds’ name in the news.  His book, Lincoln and his Admirals, was awarded the 2009 Lincoln Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of Lincoln studies.  He split the award with James McPherson, for his book Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.  [...]

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