Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime
Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime

Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime


In his recent study of Abraham Lincoln’s wartime leadership, Tried by War, the eminent historian James McPherson writes that “in the vast literature on the sixteenth president … the amount of attention devoted to his role as commander-in-chief is disproportionately far smaller than the actual percentage of time he spent on that task.”[1] Indeed, by my count only four major works within the sea of Lincoln books are devoted to an examination of Lincoln’s performance as war president,[2] notwithstanding that he is “the only president whose entire administration was bounded by war.”

The history of this essay attests to this interesting phenomenon. Several years ago, a number of eminent scholars, including Sanford Levinson, Alan Guelzo, and Lucas Morel, participated in a conference on Lincoln. These are serious scholars and they dealt with serious issues. The papers were supposed to be part of an edited book. But the organizer of the conference realized that there was a paper missing: something on Lincoln as war leader.

The conference organizer asked me to write the missing paper after the fact, and I was happy to do so. But the episode proved McPherson’s point. Here was a serious conference that included first-rate scholars, yet Lincoln’s role as wartime leader emerged only as an afterthought.

Alas, nothing came of the book, so this essay languished for several years. But the delay may have been propitious. Publishing it now leverages two events. The first, obviously, is the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth; the second is the election of President Barack Obama, in connection with whom Lincoln’s name is frequently invoked. But ironically, the true parallel between Lincoln and a contemporary president may be between the sixteenth president and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. It was Bush, after all, who arguably had to confront a Lincolnesque crisis following the attacks of 9/11.

Problems that Bush and Lincoln both faced included the decision to go to war, the balance between “vigilance and responsibility” when it came to security and civil liberties, dealing with domestic opposition to the war that often crossed the line from dissent to obstruction, and the relationship between policy and military action and its corollary, civil-military relations.

Lincoln offers many lessons for wartime presidents. But Lincoln had to learn as he went. While Bush could look back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lincoln, and while FDR could look back to Lincoln, Lincoln himself had no precedents to which he could turn. However, he did have a constitutional framework conveyed to him by the American Founders…


[1] James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), p. xiv.

[2] These include McPherson’s excellent Tried by War; Geoffrey Perret’s unsatisfactory Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief (New York: Random House, 2004); Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General, 5 volumes (New York: Macmillan, 1949-58); and T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952). There is also Eliot Cohen’s fine essay on Lincoln as war president, “Lincoln Sends a Letter,” ch. 2 of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Free Press, 2002). The title of Gabor S. Boritt’s edited book, Lincoln the War President (New York: Oxford, 1992), is somewhat misleading since the essays in it do not really get at Lincoln’s wartime leadership in a systematic way.


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