Holzer & McPherson ask: WWLD? (What would Lincoln Do?)

Historians in the News

If Barack Obama is looking for a model as president-elect, Abraham Lincoln seems perfect. In a time of national crisis, with Southern states seceding from the Union, that earlier son of Illinois had to prepare himself for taking office—but also avoid making a misstep. It was his first test as a national leader.

So, what lessons can Obama learn from what Lincoln did—and didn't do—in the time between his election and inauguration?

To find out, the Tribune asked two Lincoln scholars, Harold Holzer, author of the newly published "Lincoln President-elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861," and James McPherson, author of the classic Civil War history tome "Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief," published in October.

Here's their lesson plan:

Lesson 1: Keep your cards close to your vest.

Although pressured to deal with the secession, Lincoln refused to say anything to placate Southern leaders before his inauguration. "They tried to get him to approve compromise measures, but he wouldn't do it," said Holzer. "He said, 'By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican party become a mere sucked egg, all shell and no principle in it.' " McPherson said, "Lincoln was like Franklin Roosevelt in the Depression. He didn't want to commit himself ahead of time." As president, Lincoln had power that gave him leverage in negotiations. But not as president-elect.

Lesson 2: Avoid empty rhetoric.

On his way to the inauguration, Lincoln took an 11-day train trip with whistle stops at dozens of cities and towns along the way. Lincoln didn't want to tip his hand about his plans for the South, so he gave speeches filled with bromides. "They were meaningless remarks, and they came across to many people as taking the crisis too lightly," McPherson said.

Lesson 3: Court the opposition media.

"One of the first things Lincoln did was invite a reporter for the pro-Stephen Douglas New York Herald to spend time with him," said Holzer. "He was virtually embedded in his office for four months. The reporter, who at first doubted him, was writing positively about him by the end. It would be like Obama inviting Sean Hannity to spend a lot of time with him."...

Read entire article at Chicago Tribune

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