At Quora, the social question & answer website, we have posted the following essential question to help teachers and students organize their thoughts on some of the documents within the Father Abraham theme:

How did Lincoln’s own contemporaries respond to his leadership?

You can view (and vote) on all of the answers to this question at Quora, which is a free site but one that requires registration. Or you can see excerpts from some of the most thought-provoking answers below:


Step 1:  Defining Terms

Brian Harding on defining “contemporaries”

I am left wondering how broad we ought to define the term “contemporaries.”  Do we confine ourselves to Lincoln’s Congress, Lincoln’s cabinet, Lincoln’s generals?  After all, it is not only every Union general who was Lincoln’s contemporary–it was also every Union soldier; every family member of a Union soldier (think of Mrs. Lydia Bixby); every individual who bought a war bond; every farmer and every stevedore and every factory worker producing the materiel of war.  Each of them played their own part in the war’s outcome.  In many of these cases, I am sure, these individuals felt something like a personal connection to their president.  Ultimately, everybody within the physical boundaries of the Union ought to count as Lincoln’s contemporaries (perhaps we ought to include many who were outside the physical boundaries of the Union, as well–say, for instance, the attitudes of the more than three million men, women, and children held as bondsmen within the Confederacy). Perhaps the best test of Lincoln’s leadership is the simple fact that he was re-elected in 1864, after so many paid such a high price for a war whose conclusion was not yet known.  Or that the Union ended in many ways stronger at the conclusion of the war than at the outset, with a larger economy, with a more numerous population, etc.

Rhonda Webb on defining “leadership”

Lincoln was respected by his contemporaries as he blended men from all segments of society into a coalition force to quell the crisis of the 1860s.  His own Cabinet was made up of competitors and ambitious men.   Lincoln thought these men would serve a purpose.  Don Fehrenbacher’s 1987 article from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association explains leadership as relying on reciprocal influence between leaders and followers where there is an “assimilation or sharing of purpose.”  Lincoln and his contemporaries shared in their purpose for reuniting the nation in peace.  The key to Lincoln’s leadership success is the recognition of his own limitations and the effort he took to position the right people in the right jobs at the right time.  It may have taken a few tries to be successful in his appointments, but eventually Lincoln mobilized the political and military personnel to achieve an end to the war and the end to slavery.


Step 2:  Establishing Range


Paul Frankmann on Lincoln’s “Approachability”

Judging from the collection of 5 personal letters explored under the “Father Abraham” theme, the one word that seems to best characterize Lincoln’s leadership relationship with his contemporaries is “approachable”.  People from all roles were very comfortable with Lincoln.  They were not afraid to criticize him as a person- nor to criticize his decisions and policies.  However Lincoln rolled with the punches and seemed able to co-opt their support and direct them towards working on the ends that he saw them best able to accomplish given their talents,  Personal politics might limit the support of a contemporary, but it didn’t seem to limit Lincoln’s support for those he appointed to office, or to command.  See full answer at Quora

Susan Segal on Lincoln and his generals

Some of Lincoln’s leadership skills in general helped him in his leadership as the Commander-in-Chief from the start.  He was smart, had a keen ability to adapt to the circumstances, and was willing to admit error and learn from it.  However, his early hesitancy to bring his generals, such as McClellan, to task was a drawback.  It is true that Lincoln’s military experience was limited and he often joked about his lack of it, stating, he had “a good many bloody struggles with the Musquetoes” rather than the enemy when he served during the Black Hawk War (McPherson 2008).  Nonetheless, after reading the things General McClellan said and did or did not do, I am left curious as to why Lincoln put up with McClellan for so long (sixteen months).

Emily Trono on Lincoln and Congress

Bruce Tap’s description of the congressional members who were a part of the Committee on the Conduct of the War suggests that they would fall into the group of people who were frustrated with and doubtful of Lincoln’s leadership.  After all, the Committee was founded after the Union didn’t experience the quick win that most members expected; members of this group wanted to investigate why the North wasn’t winning so rapidly. Although Tap suggests that committee members blamed the South, West Point professional army members, and Democrats for military losses, they must also have blamed Lincoln, to some extent, for he was the Commander in Chief. Although they were less experienced in war matters than Lincoln, if they were the” narrow-minded partisans, blinded by their own sense of importance and self-righteousness” they must have been annoyed by Lincoln’s reluctance to not join them in casting blame.

Brian Elsner on Lincoln and civil libertarians

One of the chief criticisms of Lincoln as a supposed tyrant was his suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Similar to the criticisms of recent presidents and their treatment of prisoners-of-war at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Lincoln decided that the “rebellion” called for this suspension of civil liberties. In Lincoln’s letter to Erastus Corning (a Democratic congressman who had organized a public hearing on the war that questioned Lincoln’s war tactics), Lincoln defends the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. He states: “If I be wrong on this question of constitutional power, my error lies in believing that certain proceedings are constitutional when, in cases of rebellion or Invasion, the public Safety requires them, which would not be constitutional when, in absence of rebellion or invasion, the public Safety does not require them—in other words, that the constitution is not in it’s application in all respects the same, in cases of Rebellion or invasion, involving the public Safety, as it is in times of profound peace and public security” (Document #39). President Lincoln in effect statedthat the Constitution didn’t apply in this case because of the war. He essentially changed the “rules” in order to defend the public as he saw fit. Of course, not everyone – friends included – agreed with how Lincoln viewed civil liberties at that time.


Step 3: Prioritizing Evidence


Nancy Lewis on Lincoln’s letter to Reverdy Johnson

Lincoln’s response to Reverdy Johnson (Doc. #14) summed up his response to all criticisms. “I am a patient man—always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance. Still I must save this government if possible. What I cannot do, of course I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”  Lincoln was clear and uncompromising regarding any actions he had taken or might need to take in order to restore the nation.

Janet Anders on Lincoln’s letters to his generals

Dealing with his generals was an almost constant trial for Lincoln. In his 1862 letter to General McClellan he responds to the general’s complaints by concisely summing up the current situation the troops faced and ending with “I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.” Lincoln applies a verbal kick in the pants in an attempt to motivate his errant general to fight. The letter he wrote to General Hooker in 1863 was at times stern and paternal. Lincoln notes aspects of Hooker’s character and action for which he approves while also scolding him for intemperate speech and poor judgment. Hooker clearly felt that Lincoln was acting paternally. Burlingame notes “Hooker thought it was ‘just such a letter as a father might write to a son.’” The letter to Ulysses S. Grant is masterful. It is 1865 and the war is near its end. Lincoln is at once both the Commander-in-Chief and a father requesting a favor for his son. He calls Grant his friend and assures him that he can decline Lincoln’s request if he wishes.

Kory Loyola takes a different view of Lincoln’s 1865 letter to Grant

The January 19, 1865 letter to General Grant presents some problems with Lincoln’s leadership.   Lincoln asks of Grant, “Could he, without embarrassment to you, or detriment to the service, go into your Military family…”  While Lincoln’s request is presented in a respectful and friendly tone, it is problematic for many reasons.  First, Lincoln was asking a favor of Grant that Grant (by virtue of his position and Lincoln’s) could not deny.   Second, Lincoln was asking thousands and thousands of families to make a sacrifice that he was unwilling to make.  This is a demonstration of Lincoln’s apparent hypocrisy.  Third, Lincoln’s request put Grant’s supposed primary objective (defeating the Confederacy) at risk.  Surely, Robert’s presence among his ranks would force the General to shift his priorities and resources toward protecting the President’s eldest son.  Perhaps this might lead us to conclude that, in this case at least, Lincoln’s role as father to his family superseded his role as father to the Union.

Gary Emerson on the importance of Lincoln’s re-election for his leadership legacy

In August 1864, Henry Raymond, editor of the New York Times, wrote to William Seward, “I told Mr. Lincoln that his re-election was an impossibility.”  That same month, Leonard Swett wrote to his wife that “unless material changes can be wrought, Lincoln’s election is beyond any possible hope.  It is probably clean gone now (John Waugh, Reelecting Lincoln, 264-5).”  Even Lincoln believed his re-election was fading with the fortunes of the war and he wrote his famous blind memorandum, which he asked all of his cabinet members to sign without reading it.  Lincoln’s leadership was under scrutiny and most of the news was not good.  Then, fortunes on the battlefield changed for the better and with it so did Lincoln’s chances of re-election.   What if Lincoln had not been re-elected?  How would we remember him?  Lincoln would have been remembered as the failed architect of an administration that lost the war and that failed to end slavery.  Lincoln would not be remembered as a great President or a great leader.


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