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Lincoln: well prepared for leadership through life experiences

Arguably due to the myriad leadership demands of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln has long been judged the greatest of America’s 43 presidents — usually ranked just ahead of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt. Though circumstances do make a difference, Lincoln’s life experiences provide a possible template for all of us to consider as we assess our presidential candidates this year.

A humble and self-taught person with character-building experiences who could still “mix it up.”

Born on a modest Kentucky farm and raised in a log cabin, Abe relocated to Indiana at age 7 with his parents, in part because of the family’s opposition to slavery. His mother died soon after, and his hardscrabble father remarried. Nurtured by his stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, young Abe learned to read, write and speak with clarity — though he had only 18 months of formal schooling. At age 22, Lincoln struck out on his own, becoming a steamboat worker and traveling the rivers to New Orleans to sell dry goods. He then settled in New Salem, Ill., where he worked with his hands (splitting rails, among other things) and displayed a witty, winsome personality (co-owning a general store). The debt-ridden store closed upon the death of his partner, but Lincoln worked as a land surveyor and postmaster to pay off creditors — becoming known thereafter as “Honest Abe.” He was part of the Illinois militia in the Black Hawk War; the other regiments elected him captain. Lincoln, at 6-foot-4 inches, was a lean, gangling and powerful man who could more than hold his own in “rassling” matches, too.

A hands-on politician with success in the private sector while enduring family tragedy. 

After losing his first campaign for the Illinois Assembly, Lincoln decided to study law, continuing to do so while serving four consecutive terms as an anti-slavery Whig Party member. When the Assembly relocated the state Capitol to Springfield, he, too, moved there. After passing the bar exam, he joined a small law practice and prospered. In 1846 Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Two years later, his allies convinced him not to seek a second term because he strongly opposed what was then a popular war with Mexico. He returned to the practice of law at age 39, remaining active in politics while keeping an eye on a future run for office. Lincoln married Mary Todd, a sometimes unstable daughter of a wealthy banker. Only one of their four sons, the oldest, Robert, lived to adulthood. 

A person committed to addressing eloquently a transformational movement in the nation.

Illinois’ influential Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas’ support of the Missouri Compromise and his authorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act — each allowing for a self-determined expansion of slavery — activated Lincoln and his backers.  One of the founders of the new Republican Party, Lincoln accepted the nomination to run for the U.S. Senate against Douglas in 1858. At that time, Lincoln delivered his most famous anti-slavery speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” based on the Bible’s New Testament (Mark 3:25). While a man of deep spiritual thought and prayer, Lincoln never formally aligned with a religious denomination, though his opposition to slavery was often presented in religious vernacular. The Lincoln-Douglas Senate race evoked a national image of the disunion caused by slavery. “Radical” Republicans across the northern states rallied even as Lincoln lost the election. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s unique eloquence transformed him into a national political star.

A uniter with a “presidential” mind and sense of the founding fathers who is wisely positioned in a nation dividing itself.
In 1860, Lincoln and Douglas (and two other candidates) squared off again, but this time for president of the United States. With the Republican nominating convention held in Chicago, Lincoln’s allies — he stayed in Springfield for the entire campaign — strategically positioned the campaign to win the nomination against better known and more experienced opponents, in part because he was perceived as more moderate on the slavery issue. Lincoln’s “western” origins, too, appealed to delegates from the newer states. Though slavery was the dominant issue of the day, Lincoln’s life story of boyhood poverty, pioneer background, native genius and rise from obscurity was the public face of the campaign. One campaign message emphasized was the superior power of “free labor,” whereby a common farm boy like Lincoln could work his way to the presidency by his own efforts. With the succession of the southern states looming, Lincoln won the election, receiving 39.9 percent of the vote and 180 electoral votes from 16 mostly northern and western states, including Minnesota.  

A person possessing legacy leadership qualities.

On March 4, 1861, President Lincoln said in his first inaugural address that the purpose of the U.S. Constitution was “to form a more perfect union.” Lincoln’s arguments did not pass muster with the Deep South, where cotton-growing states formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy; he had reluctantly come to believe that only a vigorous prosecution of a war would preserve the Union. A month after Lincoln’s taking office, Union troops at Fort Sumter were fired upon and forced to surrender to the Confederate army. The nation’s greatest crisis, the Civil War, had begun. Lincoln’s long-planned Emancipation Proclamation, put into effect on January 1, 1863, freed slaves in territories not under Union control. The war ended on April 9, 1865, just six days before Lincoln’s shocking assassination at age 56. The costliest war in America’s history caused 620,000 soldier deaths and an undetermined number of civilian casualties. But it also ended slavery in the United States, restored the Union by settling the issues of nullification and secession, and greatly strengthened the role of the federal government. The social, political, economic and racial issues shaped by the leadership of Abraham Lincoln have significantly influenced America over the last 143 years.

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He is a former state Republican Party chair. He can be reached at

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