When we look at the world scene today it’s natural to wonder where the great leaders have gone.
Many presidents and other national leaders let the power of their office go to their heads—due perhaps in large part to the almost godlike way many of their supporters see them. As a result, they lose something critically important to success.
As Marvin Olasky recently observed in World magazine : “A half century ago America’s leaders typically attended church regularly and had a better sense of what was unseemly, but that sense became unsustainable as mainline Protestantism turned into a hollow, doughnut faith. When people make lifestyle decisions without the sense of humility and modesty engendered by belief in an almighty God, unseemliness is the result” (“Not Classy,” Nov. 3, 2012).
It’s one thing to profess faith in the Almighty, but another to truly humble yourself in your daily life, putting the national good ahead of desire for personal exaltation. This is a hallmark of great leadership.
One of America’s greatest presidents was Abraham Lincoln. What made him an effective and successful leader?
Humble beginnings forge a leader
Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a small log cabin at a place called Sinking Spring Farm in rural Kentucky. His parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, named him after his paternal grandfather. This humble start in life would also mark the first time that a future president would be born outside the original 13 colonies.
“Thomas raised his son to be a farmer and even hired him out to other homesteaders from time to time. But Abraham disliked farm work, prompting some to remark that he was ‘lazy, awful lazy.’ But others recalled that he toiled ‘hard and faithful’ and was ‘mighty conscientious’ about getting a full day for twenty-five cents—which he gave his father who legally commanded his wages until he came of age.
“Between his eleventh and fifteenth years he went to school irregularly, attending brief sessions between winter harvest and spring plowing. All told, he accumulated about a year of formal education … Lincoln came to school with an old arithmetic [book] under one arm, dressed in a raccoon cap and buckskin clothes, his pants so short they exposed six inches of his calves” (Stephen Oates, With Malice Toward None, 1977, pp. 10-11).
When Lincoln was 20 he became interested in law. At 21 he moved from Indiana to West Salem, Illinois. While living there, he decided he wanted to study law and become a lawyer. He had ambition in spite of his humble background.
He also became interested in politics. “In fact, he decided to run for political office that very year of 1832 … At the age of twenty-three, he announced himself a candidate for nothing less than the state legislature. With painstaking care, he wrote out, revised, and polished his first political platform and carried it down to Springfield.
“If elected, the candidate would give his undivided support to internal improvements. While railroad construction was a grand idea, an imaginative idea, he thought it would cost too much” (p. 23). Lincoln wanted to be elected so that he could improve and utilize the resources of the real estate that Thomas Jefferson had acquired for the country.
He would have to overcome adversity, but adversity can mature and season a person. “By late July Lincoln was back in Sangamon County and campaigning hard for the legislature. He spun yarns in country stores, pitched horseshoes with voters, and declaimed his sentiments from boxes and tree stumps. Never had he been so exhilarated, so sure of himself. Yet he lost the election, running eighth in a field of thirteen candidates” (p. 25).
“Still, all was not bleak despair in these years. In 1834 he ran for the legislature again, which cheered him considerably …
Lincoln’s soft-sell campaign paid off. On election day, August 4, he placed second out of thirteen candidates and was one of the four men elected to the Illinois house of representatives … He was only twenty-five years old” (pp. 27-28).
He would eventually serve four terms in the Illinois state legislature. He still wanted to be a lawyer and determined to become one despite the fact that he had no formal legal education.
“In March, 1836, he took his first step toward becoming a lawyer when the Sangamon County Court registered him as a man of good moral character. Afterward, between speeches on the political stump, he crammed hard for his bar exams, an oral grilling in which practicing attorneys would interrogate him on technical points of the law and legal history.
“At last he got up his courage and took the exams, sailed through without mishap, then treated his examiners to dinner, according to the custom of the day. On September 9, 1836, he received his law license and went right to work on his first case, a complicated action involving three related suits over disputed oxen and farmland” (p. 34).
Efforts to abolish slavery
Lincoln became president of the United States decades later in 1861. And on Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the territory of the secessionist Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union army and navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and the abolition of slavery.
The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed during the Civil War years when southern congressional representatives were not present for debate.
The amendment was passed in April 1864 by the Senate, with a vote of 38 to 6. The required two-thirds majority was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 93 to 65. Abolishing slavery was almost exclusively a Republican Party effort—only four Democrats voted for it.
Lincoln then took an active role in pushing it through Congress. He insisted that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment be added to the Republican Party platform for the upcoming presidential elections. He used all of his political skill and influence to convince additional Democrats to support the amendment’s passage.
His efforts finally met with success when the House passed the bill in January 1865 with a vote of 119-56. Finally, Lincoln supported those congressmen who insisted southern state legislatures must adopt the Thirteenth Amendment before their states would be allowed to return with full rights in Congress.
Standing by convictions
“Lincoln had to face the voters [in 1864], and he feared he would lose reelection. Exhausted after three and a half years of civil war, many Northerners were turning to the Democratic aspirant, General George McClellan, who was pledging a quick peace with the Rebels. Lincoln’s political advisers told him that his Emancipation Proclamation was dragging him down: millions of northerners were willing to shed blood to restore the American Union, but not to abolish slavery.
“Some told Lincoln that if he continued to make abolition a condition for peace with the South, he would be drubbed even in his home state of Illinois. Why not pull out of the race in favor someone who could win?
“But Lincoln refused to withdraw or back down, and he knew the consequences. He told one visitor, ‘You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten, but I do—unless some great change takes place, badly beaten’ ” (Michael Beschloss, Presidential Courage, 2007, p. 96).
Lincoln had courage to stand up for what he believed to be righteous principles. He wanted to finish the work of freeing the slaves and preserving the nation that would be one nation free under God. He was willing to risk his political life instead of backing down from this fight he bravely stood up to champion.
The noted historian Paul Johnson, in identifying what he believes are vital characteristics of true leadership, mentioned Lincoln among others, stating: “The ability to see the world clearly, and to draw the right conclusions from what is seen, is the foremost lesson which great men and women of state have to teach us …
“Abraham Lincoln felt all else had to be sacrificed to the overwhelming necessity of holding the Union together, behind the principles of 1776 … Such concentration of effort is itself a product of clarity of vision which includes a strong sense of proportion” (quoted by William Bennett, The Book of Man, 2011, p. 321).
It’s what’s inside that counts
Lincoln was a homely man in appearance, far from photogenic. If he were alive today, it’s difficult to see him being elected president.
Because of his looks, he was advised to grow a beard while running for president by an 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, to improve his appearance. She wrote him in part:
“Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin” (Oct. 15, 1860).
Lincoln wrote her back: “My dear little Miss. Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received—I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters—I have three sons—one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family. As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now? Your very sincere well wisher A. Lincoln” (Oct. 19, 1860).
But he went ahead and took young Grace’s advice. And during his inaugural train trip to the White House, he stopped in Westfield, New York, to give little Grace a kiss and thank her for her advice. This illustrated humility and grace.
A true leader needs godly characteristics more than anything. He should adhere to biblical commands. Abraham Lincoln was not officially a member of any church, but he endeavored to live by the Bible.
As historian Michael Beschloss noted: “Marching into the chasm of the Civil War, Lincoln immersed himself in the Bible, which he called ‘the best gift God has given to man.’
“During the summer of 1864, Lincoln’s old Springfield roommate Joshua Speed stayed overnight at the Soldiers’ Home …
Recalling Lincoln’s old complaints about religion, Speed was now startled to find the President in his bedroom, absorbed in his Bible. He told Lincoln, ‘If you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’
“ ‘You are wrong, Speed,’ replied Lincoln. ‘Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man’ ” (pp. 121-122).
What’s the best brief summation of how a Christian should live? We find a good answer when Lincoln answered a congressman from Connecticut as to why he did not join a church.
Lincoln responded: “When any church will inscribe over its altars, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both the law and the Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,’—that church will I join with all my heart and soul” (quoted by David Gelernter, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, 2007, p. 33).
This is what Jesus Christ told a man who asked Him which was the greatest commandment in the law (Matthew 22:36-40 Matthew 22:36-40 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
American King James Version×). Abraham Lincoln no doubt knew and understood this. How blessed would any nation be to have a leader who truly believed and lived these words with all his heart and soul!