This article is a series of direct passages from Leadership In Turbulent Times, as well as my own writing stitching together one of the most transformational periods in American History.
When Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency on March 4, 1861, the country was not merely divided; the country was on fire. In the four months between his election and inauguration, seven southern states had passed resolutions to secede from the Union.
At a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, representatives from these seven states formed a new government with a new constitution, selecting former Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis as a provisional president of the Confederate States of America.
Meanwhile, a growing rancor threatened to tear apart the Republican Party. On one side stood mediators convinced that with the proper compromises, the remaining slave holding states could be kept in the Union; on the other, hard-liners who believed compromise would further agitate the uncooperative South.
Abraham Lincoln was under an unrelenting amount of stress. The country was being torn apart, literally, right in front of him. To meet the terrible burden he faced, Lincoln pieced together the most unusual cabinet in American history. When other Presidents would have put together a group of subordinates that would align with his view of the world, Lincoln chose to do the opposite.
Lincoln’s cabinet was made up of every faction of the political system from conservatives, moderates, and radicals. And each person was a type A personality that was independent, strong-willed, highly educated, and more experienced than Lincoln himself. In fact, each of them had their own eyes on the Presidency.
When Lincoln was asked why? His answer: These were the strongest and most able men in the country. He needed to piece the country back together and needed the leadership of every faction around him. It was the only way to pull off his ambitious vision of the future of the country.
During Lincoln’s first year in office the situation became even more dire. The Union lost a couple major battles. There was a risk that the British or French might try to side with the Confederate Army to topple the Union. It was at this time that Lincoln felt compelled to draft the now famous Emancipation Proclamation. He felt it was his moral duty to free the slaves as well as the only way to save the Union.
At the time the South had 3.5 million slaves. The Confederate army itself even used slaves to dig trenches, cook, clean, and prepare the soldiers for battle. In addition, on the confederate home front slaves did all the work in the fields. Lincoln knew the announcement of the Proclamation would disrupt the south. Slaves would flee, run away, not work as hard, aid the north, etc.
On July 22, 1862, Lincoln brought his cabinet together to talk about his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that he wanted to be effective on January 1, 1863. His cabinet was stunned to say the least.
What is truly remarkable is how Lincoln was able to turn this group of powerful but disparate men, some of which were pro-slavery types, to slowly see the world through his lens of how the world should be.
How did he do this?
He spent time listening and empathizing with each of his cabinet members. Over the previous months he had heard each member’s view on what they thought should be done. He spent evenings in each member’s homes getting to know them, talking with them individually for hours upon hours. He wrote them personal notes at various times communicating his appreciation for their efforts. He made public statements of support for each one of them. From time to time each cabinet member received public scrutiny, and in every instance, Lincoln himself would take the negative public sentiment onto himself. He shielded them from blame. He made it really hard for any of his cabinet members to not side with him. Why? Because slowly they became his friend.
At the same time Lincoln was personally getting first-hand information from the front lines of the battlefield. He traveled and stayed amongst the soldiers. He had an open door policy whereby soldiers were told they could personally come to him with anything. Lincoln called this the “link or cord which connects the people with the governing power”. It was said that over 2,000 soldiers came to Lincoln. He heard their complaints, their cries, their worries, their ideas and their dreams. At the same time he would ask them about their stories, their families, what they were fighting for. The effect could be seen in the letters from soldiers that were sent home to family members. In these letters the words, “He cares for us”, “He is like a father”, and “He fights with us”.
Lincoln also used this time to gauge soldier sentiment across a variety of topics– one being slavery. A big contention among the cabinet was freeing slaves would cause the Union Army to break apart from those that didn’t believe in the cause. Lincoln however, already knew the answer. He did the due diligence. He already talked to them.
Lincoln was extremely patient. He waited for the right time. Historians say that if Lincoln would have brought the Proclamation public even a few months earlier it would have failed.
Lincoln said, “A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap.”
When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation he knew the timing was right. His cabinet was on his side. The cabinet even told him to let blacks join the Union Army, which was later added. The people were also on his side.
Lincoln’s cabinet and a couple others joined him the day he signed the Proclamation.
The Secretary of State said of that day, “he [Lincoln] dipped his pen in the ink, and then, holding it a moment above the sheet hesitated, and said, ‘I never, in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.’
The rest is history.
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