The media likes to draw comparisons of Lincoln and Obama. One reason is they are both from Illinois. Another reason is one is black while the other freed the slaves. Third is the power of the spoken word. But the connections end there. No President ever faced the challenges that Abraham Lincoln faced (and hopefully no one ever will again). A great Civil War tore apart families, communities, states, and a nation over a period of 4 years. It ended in the blood shed by the 16th President. But in those 4 years, Lincoln set a style for leadership which even Obama seems intent on copying.
In fact, Obama himself has been very open about his own love of Lincoln. After having read Team of Rivals myself, Obama clearly has taken several pages out of the Lincoln playbook already. From keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, Obama seems intent on mastering the Lincoln style of politics from cabinet positions to Whig philosophy of internal improvements. But I can offer 2 lessons not discussed in the book.
1. The Declaration of Independence is just as important as the Constitution, if not more so. Lincoln understood the difference between the two. While the Constitution talked of a more perfect union, the Declaration spoke glowingly of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness along with equality. Lincoln would write:
“All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.
That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.”
Clearly, if ever so clearly, the vision of America by the founding fathers has been eloquently transformed by Lincoln. The lesson is to let the vision of what America should be not be perverted by what is has become.
Lesson Two: A Domestic Agenda
Lincoln is seen as a war President and deservedly so. But his Domestic Agenda slips in under the radar and it is this domestic agenda which transformed a nation. Under Lincoln’s guise:
*The Homestead Act was passed.
*The Transcontinental Railroad was started.
*The Morrill Land Act was passed which set up universities through the nation.
*Paper Money (Greenbacks) were started.
*The Department of Agriculture was established.
As a Midwesterner, the legislation herein enabled the Midwest to thrive for a 100 years and transformed a nation economically from an agricultural base to an industrial giant in a matter of 35 years after Lincoln’s passing. The key aspect of the lesson is that many things go hand in hand. Industry cannot survive without agriculture. If we had no agriculture, our towns would dry up and fly away. If we had no railroads, how would our cattle, hogs, and grains be taken for processing and later consumption (it would be roads today). You can’t have one without the other. Let that be an economic lesson for today. Everything is part of the puzzle. Do not favor one over the other. The farmer is just as important as the banker, the creditor, or the investor, for they play their role in the economy. Invest in that.
Other Presidential Lessons for Obama Series
John F. Kennedy
George H.W. Bush