Whenever academics and scholars tickle their fancy by putting forth yet another poll of historians on presidential rankings, there is little doubt about which president will top the list—Abraham Lincoln. In the numerous such polls executed since Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. pioneered the genre in 1948 for Life magazine, Lincoln has come out as number one in nearly all of them.
Of the seven surveys I pulled together for my 2012 book on the subject, Where They Stand, the Illinois rail-splitter was judged the nation’s greatest president in six of them. In the seventh (a 2005 Wall Street Journal poll), George Washington came out on top, with Lincoln in second place. (Franklin Roosevelt almost always occupies the number three slot.)As the nation prepares to observe Memorial Day, it might be a fitting time to ponder just what constituted Lincoln’s greatness. One could begin with his personal qualities and note the encomium of the political historian Thomas A. Bailey of Stanford. Lincoln, he wrote in 1966, was “undeniably a great man…in spirit, in humility, in humanity, in magnanimity, in patience, in Christlike charity, in capacity for growth, in political instincts, in holding together a discordant political following, in interpreting and leading public opinion and in seizing with bulldog grip the essential idea of preserving the Union.” What Bailey seems to be saying is that Lincoln was a political genius who also happened to be saintly.
That is an easy case to make. But presidential greatness ultimately is a matter of presidential performance. Greatness is as greatness does. And it might be worth speculating on what likely would have happened to Lincoln’s standing in history if he had lost his 1864 reelection bid.
He almost did. In fact, that's precisely what he expected just ten weeks before the election. He wrote a note to himself, sealed it in an envelope, and stashed it away for reference only after the ballot results were known. He wrote: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to cooperate with the president-elect so as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his selection on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.” These are words of near desperation.
The central reason for Lincoln’s beleaguered state was the war—four long years of the worst carnage the country had ever seen (or likely would ever see again), with little apparent prospect for victory.
Then things turned around with stunning force. On September 3, official Washington got word that General Ulysses Grant had taken Atlanta—the first significant Union victory of the campaign year. A month later General Philip Sheridan took complete control of the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederacy’s leading supply source. Then the South’s last ramming vessel was sunk, securing the economic strangulation imposed by the North’s naval blockade.
Immediately, Lincoln’s political standing soared. “It is now certain that Mr. Lincoln will be reelected,” declared Salmon P. Chase, a leader of the Republican Radicals who had nearly given up on Lincoln as he headed into the campaign home stretch. In their 1990 book, The 13 Keys to the Presidency, Allan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell argue that the 1864 election hinged utterly on those Union military victories. Without them, Lincoln likely would have been defeated and the Union would have been dissolved, at least for a time; with them, he scored a 55 percent electoral triumph, the Union was preserved, and slavery was eradicated.
Thus it could be argued that an element of Lincoln’s greatness was the tenacity he brought to bear in attempting to get the nation through its crisis. Yet that doesn’t capture significance of the Lincoln vision that emerged in the late 1850s as the slavery issue engulfed the nation. Democrats had sought to calm the passions of the slavery issue through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but it had precisely the opposite effect. Lincoln not only saw this, but crafted a rhetorical concept of both the crisis and a pathway for getting through it. “Under the operation of that [Kansas-Nebraska] policy,” he declared, “that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.” Then, drawing from Scripture, he spoke one of his most famous lines: “ ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’” He explained: “I believe the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
This was breathtaking candor in the midst of conflicting sentiments so powerful and emotional that a clear-headed vision of the situation was rendered nearly impossible. It reflected a crucial element of his civic genius—his understanding of the power of political rhetoric that stings and disarms with its stark realism. His depiction of the situation facing America as crisis descended upon it, coupled with the moral sensibility he brought to the slavery issue, positioned him to squeeze out his 1860 presidential victory with less than 40 percent of the popular vote against three other candidates.
What renders this all the more remarkable is that Lincoln possessed few other attributes likely to propel him into the White House. He had served merely a single term in Congress nearly 15 years before his 1860 presidential run. He had never operated upon the national stage of politics in any significant way. (His fiery antiwar speeches during the Mexican War are often cited by biographers as a serious foray into the national consciousness, but this overstates the case and ignores the fact that his irreverent assault on a sitting president contributed to his becoming a one-term congressman.) Though a deft lawyer with a solid regional reputation, he had never gained national notice through his legal endeavors. He was not particularly prepossessing in appearance. He simply captured the essence of the country’s enveloping crisis with greater clarity and vision than any of his opponents.
Then, through a crisis-filled first term, he persisted in his pursuit of his vision in the face of what seemed like devastating odds—in the process revealing a remarkable political adroitness and capacity for deft maneuvering of events and people. He exercised his war powers with such force as to become almost a dictator—but without ever taking on a dictatorial mien or seeking to embed those powers institutionally in the American polity following the war crisis.
More than any other president, Lincoln left behind a nation transformed. All the great presidents set the country upon a new course at a time when the old direction no longer inspired confidence among citizens and voters. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt—all fulfilled this necessity of presidential greatness; all defined the country anew by fashioning fresh political idioms that pulled together new political coalitions, thus allowing the country to move forward into new eras. But the Lincoln transformation was the most profound and most long-lasting. Thus does he get that top slot in nearly every poll of academics with the temerity to rate the presidents. Thus also does he continue to occupy a special locus in the hearts and minds of his countrymen down to our day.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington political reporter and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.