Saturday, February 11, 2006

Abraham Lincoln Really Was Great

Abraham Lincoln's first Secretary of War--the equivalent of today's Secretaries of the Army--was a Pennsylvania pol named Simon Cameron.

As the Union was forced to fight a civil war against a rebellious Confederacy in the opening months of Lincoln's first presidential term, it became clear that Cameron was in over his head. He was an inept administrator who let out massive contracts to manufacturers of ordnance, ammunition, tents, uniforms, blankets, knapsacks, and boots that were either defective or grossly overpriced.

Lincoln eased Cameron out of his cabinet, nominating him for an ambassadorship. At first, Cameron was resentful that Lincoln made this move and bitter toward the President. But he would soon have a different attitude about Lincoln.

After Cameron had vacated his Washington post, a Congressional committee began to look at the administrative blunders the Secretary of War had committed. There were some who thought that he might have been guilty of corrupt bargains with the owners of companies that had, in effect, stolen from the federal government. Ultimately, Cameron was censured by the House of Representatives. As Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in her wonderful new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln:
Cameron was devastated, knowing that he would never recover from the scandal. Lincoln, however, made a great personal effort to assuage his pain and humiliation. He wrote a long public letter to Congress, explaining that the unfortunate contracts were spawned by the emergency situation facing the government in the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter. Lincoln declared that he and his entire cabinet "were at least equally responsible with [Cameron] for whatever error, wrong, or fault was committed."

Cameron would never forget this generous act. Filled with gratitude and admiration, he would become, Nicolay and Hay [Lincoln's secretaries] observed, "one of the most intimate and devoted of Lincoln's personal friends." He appreciated the courage it took for Lincoln to share the blame at a time when everyone else had deserted him. Most other men in Lincoln's situation, Cameron wrote, "would have permitted an innocent man to suffer rather than incur responsibility." Lincoln was not like most other men, as each cabinet member, including the new war secretary [Edwin Stanton], would soon come to understand.
Even if you didn't know another thing about Abraham Lincoln, the reading of this vignette alone would alert you to his greatness. Yes, Lincoln craved the opportunity to do great things. Yes, he made mistakes. Yes, his racial attitudes would not mark him as open-minded in today's context. But he was, as all who came to know him--from Stanton to Frederick Douglass, from William Seward to Ulysses S. Grant--a truly extraordinary figure who brought great humility and great confidence to the presidency. He also was, without doubt, the most gifted writer to serve as President, one truly worthy of the designation of Great Communicator. And, as his defense of Cameron demonstrates, he was also a person of nobility who lived the maxim Harry Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office: The Buck Stops Here!

I bring all this up because tomorrow, February 12, is the anniversary of Lincoln's birth in 1809. It's this anniversary, along with that of the birth of George Washington on February 22, 1732, that lay behind our President's Day holiday.

At the risk of being dismissed for naivete, I can assure you after a lifetime of studying the presidents and the presidency, that this country has been blessed with some truly extraordinary chief executives. Lincoln is one of them. No wonder that Theodore Roosevelt said that often, when pondering great decisions during his presidency, he asked himself what Lincoln might do. It's not a bad question for anyone who would be a leader to ask!

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