Sheltered in the warmth of a Detroit library’s archives on a blustery fall evening, I happened upon a clue to Abraham Lincoln’s political artistry. Having often visited Washington, I have met the marble Lincoln seated at the Memorial, his presence like an ancient oracle looking out toward the reflecting pool, his famous words etched on the walls, and a steady stream of tourists looking up to a revered, if distant, figure. The setting last Thursday allowed me a more personal insight.
The archivist led our small group into an alcove where the library kept fragile materials. A letter on yellowed paper, too frail to be touched, rested on a display table. Written in a forceful, cursive hand, the note was dated October 11 in the first year of the Civil War. The writer sought the aid of the Secretary of War. The signature at the bottom read, Abraham Lincoln.
At first glance, the letter’s content seemed mundane. Lincoln was asking the Secretary of War to assign two junior army officers to a general named Sherman. Never having seen one of Lincoln’s letters up close, I mused over this bit of history. For me, there was a sense of the past looking over my shoulder.
Walking out of the alcove, I found myself imagining the story that might lie behind the letter. I pictured Lincoln in the White House with his young son, Tad, playing nearby. A Congressman from a Midwest prairie district, fortified for the occasion by a prior visit to nearby Willard’s bar, asks the president for a favor for two constituents. Perhaps one had been a small town lawyer and the other a local politician; now they were officers in the burgeoning Union Army. Did I mention that Lincoln is a Republican and the Congressman a Democrat? Lincoln listens intently, turning over the Congressman’s request in his mind. Rather than committing himself, Lincoln tells a droll story, and the two men share a hearty laugh. Today, this scene would be impossible,, but in 1861, politics worked in just this fashion.
Abraham Lincoln mastered the political arts as a lifelong endeavor, beginning with many years spent brokering deals in the fractious Illinois legislature. His shrewdness and deft touch have never been equaled in American history. Lincoln’s strengths met the ultimate test in the Civil War, where military triumphs required a sturdy foundation of political success. In the North, popular support for the war remained problematic, from the opening shots at Fort Sumter to the last bugles at Appomattox Court House. Lincoln faced a precarious high wire balancing act during his presidency.
Rancorous partisan strife marked politics in Lincoln’s time. Yet, if Democrats deserted the war effort, the Union cause would be lost. One key to their support was the appointment of prominent Democrats, sometimes woefully unqualified as officers, to positions in the Army. Lincoln knew that such concessions to political reality were unavoidable, though no one felt the resulting loss of life more deeply than he did. Fortunately, he eventually found the commanders he needed to win the war.
Lincoln’s simple words in a faded letter remain with me as I write this. Certainly, his speeches deserve to be enshrined in our country’s memory, yet it should not be forgotten that he was first and always a politician of great sensitivity and finely honed persuasive ability. He could reach out to an opponent, arrange a deal, and reach a compromise—all the while keeping his eyes on the prize. Such is the legacy that Lincoln left us, if we would only learn from his bequest.