This collection of essays derives from a conference on “Lincoln and Leadership,” sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia and held on April 18, 2009, as part of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. The conference filled a large room to overflowing, as scholars, teachers, students, and the public crowded in for a day to hear presentations by prominent students of Lincoln on his role as commander in chief, as political helmsman, and as moral compass of the nation. The conference’s three principal presentations have been revised and expanded, based on the many trenchant comments and questions of that April day and of subsequent readings by several scholars conversant with the issues. They are offered here as part of the ongoing, and still sometimes contentious, assessment of Lincoln’s conduct, character, and consequence as president during the “ordeal by fire” that was the Civil War. And they are intended to invite new inquiry into considerations of Lincoln the public man and the meaning of his leadership.
The topic of Lincoln and leadership demanded attention in 2009 in light of the many different interests claiming him as the exemplar of managerial “best practices” and enlightened policy in fields as varied as politics, business, and social justice. And the Lincoln moment had come at what seemed to many a providential, or at least comparable, historical moment. The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in 2008 recalled the rise of that other lanky lawyer from Illinois, who had also served only briefly in the U.S. Congress prior to his nomination and election to the presidency during a time of dire national crisis. Indeed, during the 2008 campaign Obama and his followers oft en invoked the memory of Lincoln—to inspire their following, and to suggest that experience in Washington was not a necessary prerequisite for success as head of state. During the period of transition as president-elect and at his inauguration, Obama quickened that theme. The likeness to Lincoln was worth cultivating as his administration faced its own crises. Calling up supposed Lincoln precedents and parallels continues in arguing for and against policy, both inside and outside the government. And both political parties claim his ideas and mythology for their own purposes.