Portrait taken by Alexander Gardner at Mathew Brady's gallery,
February 24, 1861.
Portrait taken by Alexander Gardner at Mathew Brady's gallery, February 24, 1861.

A letter from Indiana, arriving at the White House in late June 1861, must have pleased and amused Abraham Lincoln. For one thing, its spelling was worse than his own:

To His honor the president of this United States of America Mr Abraham Lincoln. you Will pleas pardon Me for taking the Liberty of Addressing you Apon this ocasion. Honorable Sir, having had the plesur of Casting my Ballot for you the second father of My Country, I hav seen fitt to Name My youngest Son, Abraham Lincoln Tudor. he was Born february the 8th 1861 and Was Duly Crisond on the fourth of March of the same. Sir you May think it strange of Me taking this liberty but sir lett me asure you, that the Love for My Country and the presant choise of its Cheafe Executiv has Induced Me to Take the Corse I have. As a Mechanic and An American I feel that All i can bequeath to him is his good Name and fitt him for his Country to the best of My Ability. I have An other Son George Washington. With those glorious Names Recorded in My Bible I feel Confident of There success in life hoping dear sir you Will Take No Offence of the liberty I have taken or of my remarks hear I have Made And With your Best Wishes for my little Linky, I Remain your humble Servent

Jacob L. Tudor[1]

Mr. Tudor may well have been the first person to place Lincoln beside Washington in the national pantheon. Today they remain the two greatest heroes of the Republic, honored for what they did, what they said, what they were, and what they have become in American memory and imagination. But this preeminence, however much it reflects personal character, is obviously related also to the historical setting of their respective careers. Coming to prominence in times of crisis and unusual opportunity, they were to exercise supreme leadership at the two greatest turning points of American history. And how much of a difference did each of these men make? Was Washington indeed the "indispensable man," as his biographer, James Thomas Flexner, has labeled him? To what extent did Lincoln determine, or at least strongly affect, the course of events? The net influence of the individual in history is a problem so complex that it defies satisfactory solution and yet so important that it demands earnest attention.

Presumably, every human life exerts some measure of causal force in history. Any person who exerts a significant amount of such force and does so principally by influencing other persons is commonly called a leader. Leadership, to be sure, does not fall easily within the confines of a single definition. In some contexts, for instance, the word means a quality of personal character; in others, a pattern of individual behavior. As a social phenomenon, however, leadership is essentially a special kind of power—one marked less by command and obedience than by interaction.

Power, pure and simple, is control over the behavior of other people. It is a relation in which influence flows largely in one direction, and the purposes or goals of the behavior induced are primarily those of the power-wielder. Leadership is a more complex relation because influence flows reciprocally between leaders and followers, and there is an assimilation or sharing of purposes. True leaders do not dictate, says James MacGregor Burns. Instead, they engage and activate "the fundamental needs, wants, aspirations, and expectations" of their followers. Leadership is thus a mobilizing rather than a coercive force, uniquely capable of exploiting mass social energies and therefore more likely than naked power to have "lasting causal influence as measured by real change."[2] Page  [End Page 2]

The measure of leadership, according to Burns, is the "degree of production of intended effects." [3] And successful leadership proceeds through more or less distinct stages: selection of purpose or goal, mobilization of collective effort, and achievement of purpose. Motive and capacity blend into accomplishment.

Of course it is not all that simple or rational. Leadership may proceed, not directly, but obliquely or circuitously toward its goal. It may even be exercised, not in purposive action, but rather in deliberate inaction. Crucial leadership decisions are often expressions of individual personality rather than being objective, rational choices from carefully surveyed alternatives. And leaders can seldom escape for long the necessity of resolving conflicts or assigning priorities among multiple purposes. There are times when leaders play only contributory or passive roles in actions initiated or decisions worked out by subordinates. Important decisions, moreover, are not always made in one piece at one time. They may instead develop in increments as trains of lesser decisions, with responsibility dispersed and leadership consequently hard to identify. Finally, there is the problem of discerning the causal limits of leadership in any particular situation—that is, the problem of discriminating between events within the control and events beyond the control of identifiable persons associated with those events.

Even outstanding leadership is often unsuccessful. The best laid plans and mightiest efforts may fail to produce the intended effects. But it is also true (and perhaps more important to historians) that leadership, like all human actions, often has unintended consequences. And even intended consequences may in turn produce unintended but important secondary effects. Also, the means adopted to achieve a certain purpose sometimes have effects that overshadow the original purpose. So the total historical influence of a leader is not necessarily proportionate to his or her intended achievements, even if such achievements are the proper measure of leadership. For sound assessment of a person's role in history, one needs to consider all the significant consequences—fully intended, partly intended, and unintended—of that person's presence on earth. In the case of leaders of the first rank, the consequences are likely to reach large numbers of people and extend over long periods.

Lincoln's positive achievements are commonly summed up in the Page  [End Page 3] assertion that he "saved the Union and freed the slaves." To those two historical consequences flowing from his leadership, one might want to add that Lincoln profoundly influenced the character of the presidency and, in doing so, significantly modified the American constitutional system. But notice the differing degrees of intent in each of the three historical effects.

Lincoln's prime commitment to restoration of the Union, his mobilization of the war effort, his eloquence in rationalizing the national purpose, and the total triumph achieved at Appomattox—all to gether, these constitute an almost perfect model of purposive, effective leadership.

Emancipation was a different and more complex matter, however. Formally renounced as part of the national purpose at the beginning of the war,[4] it became only gradually a secondary objective, ostensibly justified as a means to the always primary end of victory and reunion. Many historians believe that Lincoln came to emancipation under pressure, as a matter of necessity rather than choice. And he himself disclaimed leadership in the freeing and arming of slaves. "I claim not to have controlled events," he said, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me."[5] There are other scholars, to be sure, who regard the disclaimer as part of a subtle strategy whereby Lincoln led the way while seeming to follow the lead of others. Nevertheless, emancipation must be regarded as an achievement at first intended only vaguely and tentatively, if at all.

As for Lincoln's extraordinary expansion of presidential power, which he defended with a constitutional argument that gave startling new meaning to the commander-in-chief clause, there is no deliberate intent, no purposive leadership visible at all. Lincoln had taken the professions of law and politics as he found them, and he never evinced any desire to remodel the presidency. His bold exercise of unprecedented executive authority was strictly a wartime means to a wartime end. Yet, as a political and constitutional precedent, it had consequences no less momentous than if remodeling the presidency had been his primary goal in life. Page  [End Page 4]

Lincoln's presidential career was bounded at one end by the secession crisis and at the other end by the cluster of problems associated with reconstruction. It was also complicated by the increasing entanglement of slavery and emancipation with the conduct of the war. Thus great moral issues of war and peace, of racial oppression and human rights, intrude upon any effort at a comprehensive evaluation of his leadership. The question of how capably he handled the Fort Sumter crisis, for instance, is overshadowed by the intrinsically unanswerable question of whether he was morally right in forcing the issue there at the high risk of war.

There may be some advantage, then, in examining Lincoln's presidential leadership over the limited period of one hundred days between the firing on Fort Sumter and the first battle of Bull Run—a time when the issue of war and peace had already been decided, and when the issues of emancipation, reconstruction, and the racial future of the nation had not yet become matters of urgent public concern.

During his first six weeks in office, Lincoln was more or less a prisoner of the circumstances inherited from his predecessor. To be sure, in his inaugural he emphatically rejected secession and declared that it would mean civil war, but he had no means of bringing any significant force to bear against the seceders. There was neither sufficient military power nor sufficient public support for an effort to disperse the new Confederate government and coerce the seceded states back into the Union.

The United States in early 1861 had a widely scattered, poorly equipped army of sixteen thousand men, with an officers corps shot through with sympathy for the Confederacy. The militia system had been allowed to become dilapidated; in many states it was little more than a public joke.

Congress had done nothing to prepare for possible civil war, not even in the secession winter of 1860–61, when it was preoccupied with futile schemes for sectional compromise. On December 11, incredibly, with South Carolina already preparing to secede, the Senate passed a resolution asking the War Department whether military expenses could not be further reduced. In the House of Representatives, a bill authorizing the president to employ the militia and accept volunteers to suppress insurrection was not acted upon. [6]

Lincoln's options in those first six weeks were therefore few, especially since he had chosen, in a significant act of negative lead- Page  [End Page 5] ership, not to call Congress immediately into special session. He did draft, on March 18, an order to the secretary of war for appointment of an "Inspector General of Militia" and the creation of a separate military bureau that would be responsible for "promoting a uniform system of organization, drill, equipment, &c. of the U.S. Militia." But he abandoned the plan when Attorney General Edward Bates advised him that he had no power to establish such an office. [7]

Before the unfinished Capitol, spectators await
Lincoln's 1861 inauguration.
Before the unfinished Capitol, spectators await Lincoln's 1861 inauguration.Page  [End Page 6]

Engraving of the bombardment of Fort Sumter,
April 12, 1861.
Engraving of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861.

Lincoln's only opportunity for significant decision was in respect of the southern forts still in federal hands, especially Fort Sumter. There, as of March 4, he had three options: an effort at forcible resupply and reinforcement, peaceable evacuation, and postponement of action. By early April, the third option was running out. It is not accurate to say categorically that Lincoln at this point chose war in preference to withdrawal. He did reject peaceable evacuation, but he would have settled for further postponement. So, trying to thread the needle, he offered the Confederates another alternative to war: peaceable resupply without reinforcement.

In retrospect, it appears that the Confederates would have been wise to accept the option, for the effect would have been to continue the Lincoln administration in its condition of relative helplessness. But, in the setting of feverish excitement and bitter suspicion, perhaps acceptance would have been impossible, even if Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had resolved upon it.

At any rate, the firing on Fort Sumter, which brought to an end the antebellum period of American history, radically altered Lincoln's responsibilities and the nature of his leadership: first, because of its energizing effect on northern public opinion; second, because, as an act of war, it provided a constitutional basis for vigorous executive action that had hitherto been lacking; and third, because, coming Page  [End Page 7] as it did when Congress was not in session, the Fort Sumter episode gave Lincoln the opportunity to seize the initiative from the legislative branch—an initiative that he never relinquished.

Historians have given much attention to the role of presidential leadership in bringing the nation to each of its wars: James K. Polk's ordering Zachary Taylor to the banks of the Rio Grande, for instance; Lincoln and Fort Sumter; Woodrow Wilson and German submarine warfare; Franklin D. Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor; Lyndon Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. But historians have given less systematic and comparative attention to presidential leadership in determining, once war has come, precisely what kind of war it should be.

Thus, whatever may be said about the causes of the war with Mexico, it was the Polk administration that promptly sent Stephen Watts Kearney marching westward to New Mexico and California, converting a boundary conflict into a war of conquest. And when Congress declared war on Spain in April 1898, the McKinley administration was ready with its imperialistic decision to carry the fight for Cuban freedom into the waters of Manila Bay.

But those were foreign wars and relatively simple matters compared with the tangled web of circumstance that Lincoln faced in the period of precisely one hundred days between the firing on Fort Sumter and the First Battle of Bull Run. For one thing, secession resumed, swallowing up Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and threatening to gain the upper hand in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. The boundary between the old United States and the new Confederate States thus shifted northward, but it continued to be blurred. For several weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter, Washington itself seemed to be in danger of capture. The air was filled with rumors of an impending Confederate attack, to be aided by an uprising of southern sympathizers within the city.[8] According to one report, Mrs. Jefferson Davis was sending out invitations to a reception to be held in the White House on May 1.[9] By that date, in fact, enough troops had arrived from the North to make the capital reasonably secure.

Civil war always entails the difficult, painful necessity of sorting Page  [End Page 8] out loyalties, and there were few guidelines for governmental procedure in such a crisis. The very nature of the war was unclear, and the legal status of the Confederates was consequently in doubt. Sooner or later, the Lincoln administration would have to decide whether to treat them as foreign enemies or as domestic traitors.

Furthermore, although the attack on Fort Sumter aroused the North, it did not unite all northerners for defense of the Union. Many Democrats agreed with a Maine editor who denounced "this unholy and unjustifiable war" launched for the purpose of "subjugation and tyranny."[10] One New York newspaper advised Lincoln that the way to restore peace was to issue a proclamation saying that he accepted and would enforce the Dred Scott decision.[11] An other insisted that southerners were simply claiming the same right exercised by the thirteen colonies in the Revolution. "Let us learn from the Confederate States what they demand," it proposed, "and if consistent with national honor, grant it and let them go in peace." [12] Even some members of Lincoln's own party had begun to draw back at the thought of armed conflict. On the day after the surrender of Fort Sumter, for instance, a Massachusetts Republican wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward declaring that the administration must "avoid all use of force" because war would surely mean "death to the Union." [13]

More numerous and troublesome than the peace advocates were the war enthusiasts, who demanded virtually an immediate military offensive and swift punishment of the rebels. "Carry the War South," trumpeted the New York Times. "Action! action! is the watchword." An army of twenty-five thousand, it said, should advance directly on Richmond and end the war in sixty days.[14] Horace Greeley's New York Tribune called for the capture of Richmond before the Confederate Congress met there, as it was scheduled to, on July 20. [15] The New York Herald estimated that total victory might take as much as six months, [16] and the Chicago Tribune more or less agreed. In late May, under the headline "Forward March," the Tribune Page  [End Page 9] declared: "The 4th of July should and can be celebrated by the two patriotic armies in Richmond and Memphis. The fall and winter campaign will then close the war and crush the serpent's head." [17]

Secretary of State William H. Seward
Secretary of State William H. Seward

Lincoln's original call for seventy-five thousand troops was widely viewed as far too modest. That would not be enough, said a Seward correspondent, to "bring every traitor to the rope's end."[18] The president of the University of Michigan wrote to Lincoln advising that five grand armies, each one hundred thousand strong, should be sent marching toward the strategic centers of the Confederacy to finish the work quickly.[19] The figure five hundred thousand was frequently specified as the total number of men needed. The public at large seemed to have little understanding of the enormous effort that would be required just to raise, equip, train, and feed such a military force, let alone move it into decisive battle. Page  [End Page 10]

There were also angry demands that the administration deal more severely with the agents of rebellion, that it root disloyalty out of the army and navy and out of the Washington bureaucracy, and that captured rebels be summarily punished instead of being released after taking a worthless oath. "By no government in the wide world other than ours," said the New York Times, "is treason treated so kindly or rebellion sprinkled with so much rosewater."[20] From Detroit, a local Republican politician wrote to Lincoln: "The People of Michigan think the time has come to commence hanging & so think I."[21] In most of this outpouring, the obvious difficulty of imposing such a draconian program within the limits of the Constitution was conveniently ignored.

Thus, in what remained of the United States, the weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter were a time of incredibly unrealistic expectations in the presence of problems unprecedented in their magnitude and urgency—all confronting a new president fresh from a provincial capital in the hinterland and with his shirt-tail barely tucked in; a chief executive who had never held any kind of administrative position; a commander-in-chief with military experience only as an Indian fighter who self-admittedly never saw a live, fighting Indian, although he did claim to have had a good many bloody battles with mosquitoes.[22]

It is not surprising that many observers at home and abroad should have regarded Lincoln as a man patently out of his depth in a crisis of such magnitude. To the London Times, for instance, he seemed weak, dilatory, and destined to be more of a follower than a leader in the conduct of the government.[23] Yet the very confusion of circumstances, the very uniqueness and urgency of the problems confronting him, amounted to a slate wiped clean, offering an extraordinary opportunity for the exercise of leadership. How did Lincoln respond? Decisively, beyond question. Within the first three weeks following the attack on Fort Sumter:

He issued proclamations of a blockade, dated April 19 and 27, that were tantamount to declaring the existence of a state of civil war.[24]

He initiated preparations for waging war, calling for seventy-five thousand ninety-day militia under an act of 1795, calling Page  [End Page 11] for forty-two thousand three-year volunteers, and ordering the enrollment of an additional forty thousand men in the regular army and navy. [25]

He ordered the charter or purchase of about twenty steamships by the navy to be armed for coastal-waters defense. [26]

He directed the secretary of the treasury to advance, without security, $2 million to three private citizens of New York, to be used for expenditures in connection with military recruiting and the arming and transporting of troops.[27]

He authorized General Winfield Scott to suspend the writ of habeas corpus along the line of military transportation from Philadelphia to Washington, via Annapolis. Later (July 2), the suspension was extended to New York City.[28]

He called Congress into special session, but at the late date of July 4, thereby retaining a free hand for an additional two and one-half months.[29]

No other president had ever claimed and exercised so much new power within so short a span of time. But of course decisiveness is not the same thing as effectiveness. How effective was Lincoln's leadership in the hundred days between Fort Sumter and Bull Run?

With war virtually declared, his primary task had obviously be come a military one: to oversee the raising and equipping of a sufficient military force, design a strategy for suppression of the rebellion, and put both into action as quickly as possible.

The military enterprise was also in many respects a political and economic, even a diplomatic enterprise. For instance, the raising of more than a half-million troops during the first year of the war involved the administration in some complicated relationships with the state governors. The equipment of troops involved the administration in an even more complex network of relationships with a host of suppliers and purchasing agents. And in distributing the military patronage, Lincoln felt constrained to gratify all of the constituencies upon which he was depending for support of the war effort—including, for example, loyal Democrats and various ethnic Page  [End Page 12] groups. (Lincoln's political generals were not, on the whole, a very successful lot, but then the same can be said of a good many professional generals as well. For every Ben Butler there was a Burnside, and it took time for the emergence to full view of Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Thomas. In any case, given the system of raising troops, it would have been impossible to avoid appointing a good many civilian leaders to command positions.)

In raising an army, Lincoln had to rely heavily upon the state governors and upon his secretary of war, Simon Cameron, who proved unequal to his responsibilities. Cameron's appointment, an unwise concession to political expediency, is strong evidence that Lincoln did not come to the presidency expecting a real civil war. The president corrected his mistake as soon as he could decently do so—in mid-January 1862—sending Cameron about as far away as possible, to the American ministry in St. Petersburg.

In the disposition of military forces, Lincoln relied heavily upon his military commanders, especially the head of the army, seventy-five-year-old Winfield Scott. Yet he did not accept Scott's grand strategy for winning the war as painlessly as possible: the "anaconda plan." Or, to be more accurate, Lincoln embraced the positive aspects of the plan (blockade of southern ports and a drive for control of the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans), but he eventually rejected its negative aspects, which would have entailed adopting a defensive posture on the Virginia front and sitting tight until Unionist sentiment got the upper hand in the South.[30] It seems unlikely that the anaconda plan could have succeeded; it seems certain that northern public opinion in its aroused state would not have permitted a sustained implementation of the plan.

The Lincoln administration's formulation of a policy in response to secession well exemplifies decision-making as an incremental process and leadership as a concentrated expression of popular will. There can be little doubt that Lincoln was committed from the beginning of the secession crisis to preservation of the Union by force if necessary. But only gradually did the amount and kind of Page  [End Page 13] force to be applied become clear. In his inaugural, he asserted only a very limited purpose: "The power confided to me, will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion—no using of force against, or among the people anywhere."[31] After the attack on Fort Sumter, he went further, declaring an intent to reclaim it and other federal forts seized by the Confederates. That, he announced in his proclamation of April 15, would be the first task assigned to the seventy-five thousand militia he was calling to active duty. [32] Yet at the same time he continued to assure various southerners that his intentions were purely defensive. "I have no objection to declare a thousand times," he wrote to Reverdy Johnson of Maryland ten days after the fall of Sumter, "that I have no purpose to invade Virginia or any other State, but I do not mean to let them invade us without striking back." [33]

Seventy-five thousand ninety-day militia certainly did not constitute a strong enough force with which to launch a general offensive against the Confederacy. And when Lincoln, on May 3, issued an other proclamation calling for additional volunteers and enlistments, that too might have been regarded as essentially defensive in nature, although he did specify that the additional troops were needed to suppress "insurrectionary combinations now existing in several States." [34] Even the first military actions, such as the seizing of Alexandria and the clearing of West Virginia, could be justified as efforts to safeguard Washington and the Baltimore and Ohio Rail road, respectively. And all of these things certainly would have fitted in with the anaconda concept of limited warfare. By the time of his message to Congress on July 4, however, Lincoln had moved on to the point of projecting an all-out war. "It is now recommended," he said, "that you give the legal means for making this contest a short, and a decisive one; that you place at the control of the government, for the work, at least four hundred thousand men, and four hundred millions of dollars." [35]

In viewing Lincoln's progress from a strategy of defense to a strategy of total war, one can see him as the mere echo of public opinion, or, at the other extreme, as a Machiavellian schemer resolved Page  [End Page 14] all along to mount a full-scale war. From the evidence, however, I get the impression of a man feeling his way uncertainly to a plan of action, guided in some degree by his advisers and by public feeling, but influenced most by his own reading of the situation.

The formal decision to undertake a military offensive in the summer of 1861 was essentially Lincoln's, overriding the reluctance of his top generals. The reports from the battlefront were favorable at first. The New York Times of July 22 carried the headline: "Victory at Bull's Run—Sumter Avenged." Then, on the next day, the headline became: "Disaster to the National Army." The Times brazenly laid the blame on "popular clamor, promoted by certain reckless journals" with their "senseless and incessant cry of 'Onward to Richmond.'" But the ultimate responsibility for the humiliating defeat obviously lay with Lincoln. "The impression here is very general," wrote Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his father in England, "that Scott's policy was interfered with by the President in obedience to what he calls the popular will."[36] There was also some feeling that Lincoln had risked God's displeasure by allowing a major battle to be fought on a Sunday.[37]

Yet the decision to launch an attack, however much it may have been influenced by the public clamor for action, was probably sound. The Union forces had a numerical superiority, and General Irvin McDowell's plan of battle was well conceived. With a little luck, the outcome might have been a victory. The widespread belief that the war could be ended swiftly with a few bold strokes had to be tested. This was the first opportunity to do so, and here, as in the case of Fort Sumter, there was probably more to be lost by inaction (a decline of public morale, for instance, and perhaps European recognition of the Confederacy) than by action, whatever its result.

The defeat, although bitterly unwelcome, proved salutary in some ways. It defined the war in realistic terms for the North and dissolved the fantasies of quick victory. A grimmer resoluteness set in, and preparation for the real war began. "If this is to be a war of years instead of months, let it be so," declared the Chicago Tribune. [38] Indeed, the northern response to this shocking setback was full of portent; for, given the great superiority of the North in manpower Page  [End Page 15] and materiel, the outcome of the war may have depended less on Union victories than on the northern capacity to sustain defeat.

In the first weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter, however, the primary task of raising a great army and sending it into battle seemed less urgent than a problem that required both military and political action, delicately combined. That was the necessity of holding the loyalty of the Great Border, especially Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. In this difficult enterprise, Lincoln's guiding hand was always visible, and his political skill was put to one of its severest tests.

Different circumstances dictated the adoption of different policies in each state. Maryland, where pro-Confederate violence temporarily isolated Washington, was held in the Union primarily by force, seasoned with political persuasion. The loss of Kentucky was prevented, in contrast, by a policy of patience and lenience in which Lincoln's role was especially prominent. In Missouri, the administration had less control over its own agents and less success. The state became a battleground and had to be subdued by military conquest that might have been avoided if more prudent policies had prevailed.

Still another urgent problem at the beginning of the hundred days was the danger of foreign intervention in a manner favorable to the Confederacy. The magnitude of that danger is difficult to estimate, but high British officials had certainly threatened serious action if the cotton trade were interrupted. It seems likely that the emphatic, even bellicose, response of the Lincoln administration to the talk about intervention discouraged the British from going beyond their recognition of Confederate belligerency in May. By late June, Minister Adams could report that such aggressiveness had produced a healthy change in the attitudes of British officialdom. [39]

This, to be sure, was largely the work of William H. Seward rather than Abraham Lincoln, but not entirely so. The two men discussed foreign policy frequently, and Lincoln more than once exercised a restraining influence upon his adventurous secretary of state. For one thing, right at the beginning he had thrown a blanket of quiet rejection over Seward's plan for reuniting the Republic by precipitating a foreign war. [40] For another, he intervened to soften the impact Page  [End Page 16] of Seward's famous Dispatch Number 10 to Adams (May 21), not only by moderating its language, but also by altering the means of its presentation. [41]

Thus, under Lincoln's leadership during the period from Fort Sumter to Bull Run, there was a mixture of general success with some specific failures in the raising and fielding of an army, in the struggle for the Great Border, and in resistance to foreign intervention. Furthermore, one notes considerable variation in his active input from one category to another. He took fullest charge of the border-state policy, which called for so much political sensitivity and skill. He shared with General Scott and other experts the responsibility of directing military policy, for in that realm he was still very much a learner. And, except at rare moments, he played a passive, consultative role in the conduct of foreign policy. But these variations illustrate the varieties of leadership and its essentially interactive quality, including the capacity to delegate authority without utterly relinquishing it. The members of the cabinet knew who was in charge, whatever amount of departmental autonomy they were allowed. "Executive skill and vigor are rare qualities," Seward wrote in early June. "The President is the best of us." [42]

In venturing that estimate, Seward was speaking for a small minority, however. Far more Americans of 1861, in Washington and elsewhere, believed that they had a good-natured, well-intentioned mediocrity in the White House. That impression persisted to the very end of Lincoln's life, even among many persons who knew him well. But there were others among his contemporaries who came, quickly or gradually, to perceive the peculiarly appropriate quality of his leadership in the nation's most critical hour. Who came to appreciate, for instance, Lincoln's capacity for eloquence and for plain talk when either was needed. Who came to realize how effectively he combined tenacity of purpose with flexibility of method. Who came to understand that without arrogance he had confidence in his own powers, and without sentimentality he had faith in the people. Page  [End Page 17]

Faith in the people—the common people. The best leadership is creative interaction, and perhaps Lincoln was thinking just a little about Jacob Tudor and George Washington Tudor and Abraham Lincoln Tudor when, in his message to Congress of July 4, 1861, he made his first public effort to define the meaning of the war: "This," he said, "is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start in the race of life."[43] Page  [End Page 18]


  1. In a postscript, Tudor indicated that he was giving the letter to his congressman, William S. Holman (a Democrat) for delivery by hand. Jacob L. Tudor to Lincoln, June 23, 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The letter is published in David C. Mearns, ed., The Lincoln Papers: The Story of the Collection with Selections to July 4, 1861, 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948), 2: 638.return to text
  2. "Politicial Leadership in America: A Discussion with James MacGregor Burns," The Center Magazine 13 (July–Aug., 1980): 10; James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 439. See also, Burns, "Wellsprings of Political Leadership," American Political Science Review 71 (March 1977): 273–75; Andrew S. McFarland, Power and Leadership in Pluralist Systems (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969), 153–76. return to text
  3. Burns, Leadership, 22. return to text
  4. Most notably by implication in the Crittenden and Johnson resolutions passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate on July 22 and 25, 1861. But for the limited significance of the resolutions, see Herman Belz, Reconstructing the Union: Theory and Policy during the Civil War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969), 24–28. return to text
  5. Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 7: 282. It is important to note, however, that Lincoln made this statement in a letter to a Kentucky editor.return to text
  6. Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 2 sess., 46, 1001, 1225–32.return to text
  7. Basler, Collected Works, 4: 291–92.return to text
  8. New York Herald, April 25, 30, 1861; Charles Keating Tuckerman to William H. Seward, April 13; James H. Bostwick to Seward, April 14; J. E. Hadnett to Seward, April 15; P. H. Cooney to Thomas C. Theaker, April 20, 1861, William H. Seward Papers, University of Rochester; James Henderson to Abraham Lincoln, April 16; Neal Dow, April 22, 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection.return to text
  9. William Holdredge to Seward, April 17, 1861, Seward Papers.return to text
  10. Bangor Democrat, April 18, 1861, quoted in Herbert Mitgang, ed., Lincoln, as They Saw Him (New York: Rinehart, 1956), 256–57.return to text
  11. New York Evening Day Book, April 18, 1861.return to text
  12. New York Journal of Commerce, quoted in New York Times, April 16, 1861.return to text
  13. J. M. Churchill to Seward, April 15, 1861, Seward Papers.return to text
  14. New York Times, April 18, 20, 21, 22, 1861.return to text
  15. New York Tribune, June 1, 1861. On June 19, a Tribune editorial declared: "The war should be closed in triumph within one year from the time it commenced." return to text
  16. New York Herald, April 24, 1861. return to text
  17. Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1861. return to text
  18. George W. Patterson to Seward, April 18, 1861, Seward Papers.return to text
  19. Henry P. Tappan to Lincoln, April 19, 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection.return to text
  20. New York Times, June 30, 1861. return to text
  21. B. Chandler to Lincoln, June 15, 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection.return to text
  22. Basler, Collected Works, 1: 510. return to text
  23. London Times, May 20, 1861. return to text
  24. Basler, Collected Works, 4: 338–39, 346–47.return to text
  25. Ibid., 331–32, 353–54. return to text
  26. Ibid., 5: 241.return to text
  27. Ibid., 242.return to text
  28. Ibid., 4: 347, 419.return to text
  29. Ibid., 332.return to text
  30. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880– 1901), series 1, vol. 51, part 1, 369–70; Charles Winslow Elliott, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (New York: Macmillan, 1937), 721–24. Lincoln's attorney general proposed a similar strategy on the day after the fall of Fort Sumter. It would be, he maintained, "the cheapest and most humane method" of destroying the Confederacy. See Howard K. Beale, ed., The Diary of Edward Bates, 1859–1866, vol. 4 of American Historical Association Annual Report for 1930 (Washington, 1933), 182–85.return to text
  31. Basler, Collected Works, 4: 266. return to text
  32. Ibid., 332.return to text
  33. Ibid., 343.return to text
  34. Ibid., 353.return to text
  35. Ibid., 431–32. return to text
  36. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861–1865, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1920), 1: 22.return to text
  37. S. D. Pardee to Gideon Welles, July 30, 1861, Gideon Welles Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.return to text
  38. Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1861. return to text
  39. Adams to Seward, June 21, 1861, House Executive Documents, 37 Cong., 2 sess., no. 1 (serial 1117), 109–11; Martin B. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807–1886 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1961), 268–69.return to text
  40. Basler, Collected Works, 4: 316–18. The New York Herald offered a similar grandiose plan on June 27, 1861, proposing that the two great armies facing each other join together in conquering Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies. return to text
  41. Basler, Collected Works, 4: 376–80; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 297–98. return to text
  42. Frederick W. Seward, Seward at Washington, as Senator and Secretary of State: A Memoir of His Life with Selections from His Letters, 1846–1861 (New York: Derby and Miller, 1891), 590.return to text
  43. Basler, Collected Works, 4: 438. return to text