Abraham Lincoln's Lessons for Barack Obama and Future Presidents

Lincoln's ability to hone his strengths and learn from his weaknesses make him relevant today.

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There it was, impossible to ignore, under Barack Obama's left hand. As the 44th president took the oath of office last month on the steps of the Capitol, he pledged to uphold the Constitution on the same velvet-covered Bible used by Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War.

The symbolism was no accident, of course. Mindful of his powerful connection, as the first black president, to the continuing legacy of the man who freed the slaves and won the war that preserved the Union, Obama draped himself in the mantle of Lincoln throughout his inauguration. He arrived in Washington along the same train route used by Lincoln in 1861, and his inauguration ceremony was given the theme "A New Birth of Freedom," a nod to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Obama's inaugural address paid homage again and again to Honest Abe, echoing the Civil War president's call for an end to partisan dogma. He even ordered the same lunch (seafood stew) that Lincoln ate on his Inauguration Day.

While Obama, during his first few weeks in office, has shown no sign of stepping away from Lincoln's historic glow, he may soon have some company. This month, the nation is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and scholars are looking both forward and backward, grappling with Lincoln's legacy and joining the new administration in a search for lessons from Lincoln's presidency that might be of use during another period of uncertainty and doubt. "Lincoln continues to be the most studied president, not just because of the complexity of his character and the fascination with his personal story," says James McPherson, a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life, one of dozens of books about Lincoln being published this year. "He was in charge of the country during its greatest crisis, and he brought us through that crisis. That's what makes him so fascinating."

Lincoln was a famously private, even mysterious, figure, and long before last month's inauguration, it had already grown difficult to penetrate the myth that surrounds the man. The life of the rail-splitter from Illinois who rose from a log cabin to the White House, only to be assassinated days after the end of the Civil War, has been scrutinized ever since his death. As early as 1876, Frederick Douglass, for one, said that "no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln."

Still, in a wave of scholarship accompanying the bicentennial, historians insist that there is much to be learned from Lincoln's presidency. The man who is celebrated for being among the greatest American presidents "was not born, after all, on Mount Rushmore," as historian William Lee Miller once said. Instead, he was a talented speaker and consummate politician who proved willing and able not only to learn on the job but to adapt to changing circumstances.

Lincoln was no abolitionist when he took office, but during his years in the White House, he changed with his times, not only issuing the Emancipation Proclamation but also throwing his support behind full equality for African-Americans. As a young man, Lincoln railed against what he viewed as the excessive wartime powers of the presidency, but in his first year as president, he controversially stripped civilians of their right to speedy trials—then struggled, years later, to restore the civil liberties he had taken away. Lincoln was never a very religious man, but he proved adept at mobilizing his era's powerful evangelicals, turning to biblical imagery to crystalize the meaning of the American nation. He was a man with little formal schooling who was quick to grasp the power of new technology, and an unusually humble statesman who did as much as any politician of his era to cultivate his own image.

Lincoln was a man, in other words, of endless contradictions. But that hasn't prevented scholars from standing in awe of the way he honed his strengths and learned from his weaknesses during four trying years in the White House. It was these very qualities, they say, that may have made Lincoln a man not only for his time but for today.