As divided as our country is -– as evidenced by the recent mid-terms, the latest in a string of see-saw elections that has created partisan gridlock and ended both parties’ dreams of long-term majorities -– it pales in comparison to an election that took place 150 years ago this month.
On Nov. 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States by carrying the near entirety of the North and with essentially zero support in the South. In fact, Lincoln won only two of 996 counties in the South and wasn’t even on the ballot in ten of the 11 states that would ultimately become the Confederacy. Red state versus blue state wasn’t merely a theme tossed about by the day’s political pundits; it was a de facto rule.
Today’s fierce political battles are focused on which direction to take the nation, not whether whole regions want to be a part of it, so the stakes are certainly less dire than what President Lincoln faced in his time. But today’s leaders could still learn a few things about governing a divided nation from a man historians regard as one of the nation’s greatest presidents.
In the current environment in which merely reaching across the aisle is seen as a sign of moral weakness, Lincoln took great pains to avoid demonizing his opponents.
Merely weeks before the war started with the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address in a conciliatory tone in the hopes that a peaceful solution to the crisis could be found.
He said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
His ability to take a respectful, even loving tone with members of a rebel movement that threatened the very nature of the United States make the recriminations and ugly language we saw coming from both sides of the health care reform debate seem wildly inappropriate in comparison.
Lincoln was also willing to put policy over politics, taking unpopular positions even when they were not politically expedient.
When it became clear that national sentiment was turning against the war, threatening his 1864 re-election campaign, Lincoln doubled down. Instead of reversing course, he publicly pledged to continue his war strategies even if they led to his defeat. Luckily for him, the North’s fortunes improved with the capture of Atlanta and Mobile and Lincoln won the election in a landslide.
Perhaps the greatest lesson today’s leaders could learn from Lincoln was how he led with magnanimity.
In the wake of the North’s victory in the Civil War, the tremendous bloodshed and destruction caused by it created a public desire to harshly punish the South for its perceived transgressions. But Lincoln resisted this urge, even in the face of opposition from his own party, to instead focus on an approach that would create the greatest amount of reconciliation and encourage the country to quickly unite and once again live peacefully.
As his own words so appropriately stated in his second inaugural address, Lincoln led with “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” That is something that both the winners and losers of Tuesday’s elections, and future elections for that matter, would be smart to keep in mind.
Source: Terri Susan Fine, Ph.D. Dr. Fine is a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and an associate director and senior fellow at the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government.