Lincoln and Leadership:
Allen C. Guelzo
Shortly after his arrival in Washington in late February 1861, Abraham Lincoln was confronted by an anxious delegation from a national peace conference that was even at that late moment hoping to head off the national gallop toward civil war. They were not unfriendly; many of the conference's members were, like Lincoln, old-time Whigs from the Upper South and the border states. But they wanted some statement from Lincoln about the policy he would adopt toward the seven southern states that had declared their secession from the Union, a statement that they could add to the oil they were trying to spread on the nation’s troubled waters. Bafflingly, Lincoln replied that he was still too unacquainted with the situation to make any statements about policy. He informed them “that he was accidentally elected president of the United States”— accidentally, in this case, meaning that his election was the result of the threeway splintering of opposition candidates who had thus ensured his election by default—“that he had never aspired to a position of that kind; that it had never entered into his head; but that from the fact of his having made a race for the Senate of the United States with Judge Douglas in the state of Illinois, his name became prominent, and he was accidentally selected and elected afterwards as president of the United States.”1 He was, in other words, simply unprepared to offer them anything—direction, hope, even hostility.
The delegation listened to this with a healthy degree of incredulity, and so do we. We do not elect presidents because they lack ideas, but because the majority of the citizenry agree with the ideas the candidates take so much trouble to articulate. But in some senses Lincoln was speaking more truly than his hearers credited. His election had been something of an electoral fluke. He carried only 39 percent of the popular vote in the election of 1860 (although that 39 percent was concentrated in northern states with rich electoral-college representations, which could probably have elected him even if the three rival candidates had banded together on one ticket). Even more, his nomination by the Republican national convention came from far, far behind the pack of front runners like William Henry Seward and Salmon Chase. He had twice, unsuccessfully, run for the