Lincoln and Leadership:
Randall M. Miller
Over a half-century ago, the eminent historian David Donald observed that Americans have been trying to “get right with Lincoln” since his death and predicted that trying to do so would continue thereafter.1 He was right on both counts, as any sampling of the enormous and continuing cascade of literature on the man and his meaning will attest. Donald wrote and many others have agreed that Americans’ preoccupation, or at least fascination, with getting to know Lincoln was in part due to the centrality of Lincoln and the events of his day in defining “freedom” and defending the integrity of the democratic experiment in self-government. Then, too, Lincoln’s “martyrdom,” as his assassination on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, came to be seen by countless Americans from his day to ours, seemed an affirmation of the American conceit about its supposed chosen place in God’s grand design for human betterment. Through Lincoln might come America’s “redemption,” if the people would but understand him and follow his lead.
But which Lincoln should the people follow? In the public mind, Lincoln became over time the Great Emancipator, the Savior of the Union, the Man of the People, and more. The Lincoln Memorial—with Abraham the father seated on his throne and the holy scripture of his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address inscribed on the walls inside that great temple—put in marble the commanding presence of Lincoln, overseeing all. It was more than just convenience, a grand vista, and access to much open space on the Mall that has made the Lincoln Memorial a mecca for advocates and protesters of any number of causes. To stand before Lincoln, addressing an assembled people, was to claim for a cause the authority of God’s own anointed son. Lincoln could, and did, become all things for many different people in the United States and abroad.2
But Lincoln the man was and has remained a puzzle. He was, for example, at once a man more committed to solving problems than espousing an ideology, a man with a clear purpose but no fixed policies to realize it. Lincoln’s “continuing vogue,” Donald rightly noted, was “his essential ambiguity.”3 It remains so today.