Why We Admire Lincoln

02/20/2012 05:08 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2012

Abraham Lincoln is the most revered president. This is especially striking in light of the fact that Lincoln presided over a period more challenging and economically destructive than any other in America's history. The Civil War resulted in 635,000 soldier deaths (over 2 percent of our population versus only .2 percent of our citizen killed as soldiers during World War II, our next most relatively costly conflict); over 1,000,000 wounded soldiers; and an estimated economic cost of $13 billion in 1860 dollars (roughly 4 times as large as annual GDP in 1860).

In light of all the carnage through which his reputation could readily be tarred, why does Lincoln instead elicit such high esteem? Many factors have been advanced -- his rise from lowly origins, humility, compassion, integrity, self-made character, ability to overcome adversity, and humor. Amazed, for example, by the sheer number of fellow citizens who would show up during calling hours to ask for some form of assistance once he became president, Lincoln quipped to his secretaries when he came down with a cold that now they could let in all of office/favor seekers because he "finally had something he wanted to give them."

Perhaps the most important ingredient to Lincoln's secret sauce, however, was his ability to build political coalitions that ultimately promoted the betterment of our Republic. In the presidential elections of 1856 and 1860, for example, he was integral to stitching together such disparate groups as abolitionists, the Temperance Movement, Free Soilers, Know Nothings (who were fiercely opposed to immigrants), Whigs, and disaffected Democrats. The platforms that he helped shape forged a working alliance between interests that could have easily ended up going their separate ways, propelled him to the presidency, and built a Republican party that endures to this day.

Dealing with slavery -- the knottiest problem ever to confront our nation -- tested Lincoln and ultimately show-cased his keen political acumen. He lacked the electoral support to make abolition a part of his platform in 1860. Doing so, likely would have kept him from being elected. Moreover, even if Lincoln had been elected on a platform that included abolition, the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware would have joined the Confederacy. Such a loss would have eliminated the ability to preserve Washington as our capital and arguably the capacity of the Union to suppress the secessionist movement.

Once in office and as the Civil War and its horrendous toll unfolded, Lincoln tested a libertarian/economic solution to slavery. In a March 1862 letter to Illinois Senator McDougall, Lincoln laid out an "emancipation with compensation" proposal. Lincoln estimated that buying the freedom of the estimated 432,622 slaves in Washington, D.C. and the four border states would cost $173 million, the equivalent of fielding the Northern Army for just three months during that year.

Lincoln correctly sensed that the proposed compensation idea would be a much less costly than a military solution. Indeed, the best present-day estimates indicate that it would have taken roughly $3 billion (in 1860 dollars) to compensate slave-owners for voluntary emancipation in contrast to the over $11 billion in destruction wrought by the War Between the States. Lincoln was unable to get his idea to take broader root, however, partly because Northerners underestimated the cost of suppressing the rebellion while Southerners had become wedded to their cause and the belief that it could be successfully defended.

In moving next to his Emancipation (without compensation) Proclamation, Lincoln had to thread the ultimate needle: waiting for a Union victory, Antietam in September 1862, so as to build optimism for final Northern military success; applying the provisions of the Proclamation exclusively to Confederate States, so as not to lose the border states; fostering support among the general citizenry of France and England so as to keep the elites in those foreign powers, who were upset about the North's blockade of cotton shipments from the South, from recognizing the Confederacy; and dealing with the negative consequences in that fall's congressional elections as well as insubordination at the Army of Potomac's headquarters where most of the staff were Democrats, intensely loyal to its commander George McClellan, and talking of a military coup against Lincoln.

Effective leadership then as now involves developing and executing strategies that result in the whole of an organization being greater than the sum of the parts. Lincoln's stature today reflects his ability to do so in the face of a task that was indeed greater than that which rested upon George Washington (as he noted in his farewell address to his neighbors in Springfield in 1861) or any other president since. The manner in which he rose to this challenge, led among other things to taking our nation closer to living the ideals spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. It also ensured that when people referred to "The United States of America" the "The" was taken to be singular whereas it had been plural prior to the Civil War.

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, and someone who had sized him up as a country bumpkin when their paths first crossed during the 1850s, wept openly at his deathbed in April 1865. Having seen Lincoln's leadership first-hand, Stanton so eloquently and aptly noted that that is why "Now he belongs to the ages."