What fed workers can learn from Lincoln: An interview with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer
The one piece of advice that he might give the president is to get out often and see them. Lincoln had a big impact on people when he went out among them. He would visit the Army periodically during the Civil War. He would ride a horse, and even though the soldiers wrote home that he looked terrible on horseback, because he was all bent over or his pant leg kept grazing up and you could see his long johns underneath, these kinds of things made him seem like an uncle or a father to these young people.
He also engaged the greater population and the workforce in constant communication that was unprecedented in that time. Lincoln is known as a great orator, but it is sometimes forgotten that presidents in his age did not speak routinely before the public. They weren't expected to because it was like they were a step above the public. Lincoln issued what historians now call "public letters." He would print letters in the newspaper and give federal workers and citizens alike an idea of why he was doing certain things and why the government was moving in another direction.
What personal qualities made Lincoln such a successful leader?
A unique combination of empathy and energy. Lincoln was a worker. He challenged others to work because of his own work ethic. As president, when he wasn't working, he was pacing the floor of the White House and worrying. He put in enormous time and put himself on the line in more ways than one. He was a person who cared about justly treating his constituencies, his associates and people who were on a lower rung than he. [He had] concern for the people who had the least [and paid] attention to ordinary Americans and children.
Certain myths are exaggerated about Lincoln, but the legendary stories about his honesty and his strength are true. His sense of humor was also really important and was a major attribute of his personality that people loved to see. Some people objected to it, because they thought it was inappropriate, especially during a war, but I think it endeared him to many people.
How did Lincoln inspire loyalty among voters and the federal workforce?
Lincoln was really aware of not only anti-government spirit but also anti-government worker sentiment--the idea that a government worker is part of some villainous source that emanates from the top and directs our lives. He fought this misperception.
Lincoln was self-sacrificing during the war. His face, which he made sure was photographed, painted and sculpted so that people could see him in the world before mass communications, seemed to almost absorb the national calamites in his own physiognomy. I have to admit that President Obama looked pretty gray at the State of the Union. He's starting to reflect this country's problems, and I think it makes us more empathetic. It certainly makes the workforce and the voting population more empathetic to know that our leaders are not like dictators who are sitting in marble bathtubs while the people are suffering. They're feeling our pain. Lincoln felt the pain and he made sure other people understood that, and I think it's a way to lead, inspire and keep the loyalty of voters and the workforce.
What is one of your favorite anecdotes about Lincoln?
150 years ago Abraham Lincoln was going on his inaugural journey to Washington, and there was one person on the journey who wasn't listed on the official manifest. His name was William Johnson, and he wasn't listed because he was black. Lincoln called Johnson his valet, but he was more like what we would today call Lincoln's 'body person'. Johnson took the entire trip with Lincoln from Springfield, and when they arrived in Washington, Lincoln introduced Johnson to the White House staff and said, "This is William Johnson, he's my valet." However, the staff who had been there since the Jackson era would not work with Johnson, so Lincoln found a spot for Johnson as a gardener and then eventually got him back on his household staff.
On another famous train journey in 1863 from Gettysburg, Johnson took care of an ailing Lincoln who had caught a mild case of smallpox himself. About four weeks later, William Johnson passed away after contracting small pox. The story is that Lincoln had Johnson, an African-American federal employee, buried with full-honors in Arlington National Cemetery and paid for a headstone that read: "William Johnson: Citizen." It's an amazing story.
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