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Nancy Koehn

Nancy Koehn

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

Abraham Lincoln: Never made of marble

Yes, April 15 is tax day. (And we can all breath a deep sigh for what this means--emotionally as well as financially--for each of us).

But there is something else important to note today as well. It is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's death. One hundred and forty-five years ago today, the 16th president took his last breath in a small, narrow room on Tenth Street in Washington, D.C.

The general circumstances of his death are well known to us. The night before--which in 1865 happened to be Good Friday--John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor, shot Lincoln in the head while he was attending a play at Ford's Theater. The first people to reach him, including an army surgeon, decided not to take the unconscious president back to the White House for fear he would die from the jostling on Washington's rough streets. So he was carried across the street to a house owned by William Petersen, a tailor, and placed in a bedroom at the back of the first floor. At 6'4", Lincoln was too tall to lie lengthwise across the bedstead. So he was positioned diagonally across the mattress, his head and shoulders supported by extra pillows.

There he remained (still unconscious) for another nine hours surrounded by his wife Mary, various colleagues, doctors, military personnel and a clergyman. In the early hours of April 15, Lincoln's breathing became labored and his pulse irregular. At 7:22 in the morning, death claimed him. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war, stood at the foot of the bed, tears falling down his cheeks and said, "Now he belongs to the ages."

What we don't know so well about Lincoln's assassination is that this sudden, violent event--he was the first president killed in office, an event that led to the founding of the Secret Service in 1865--effectively created two Abraham Lincolns: the actual human being whose journey with all its twists and turns ended up having enormous, (if largely unintended) impact and the iconic hero-leader-savior whom Stanton immortalized at the president's deathbed.

Stanton's remarks were just the beginning of the deification of our 16th president, a collective enterprise that continues into our own time (witness the dizzying number of books published on Lincoln last year) and that is perhaps best represented by the picture we each carry around in our heads of Lincoln. For most Americans, this image is not a photograph of the president's careworn face in 1863 or 1865, but rather the 19-foot marbled statue of the Great Wise Leader in the Lincoln Memorial. This is how we think about (and more frequently than not, love) the 16th president of the United States.

The problem with the figure that "belongs to the ages" is that is often crowds out or blocks our view of the actual man, Abraham Lincoln and of how his humanity--particularly what he learned from the setbacks and failures along his life's path--shaped his actions as president. For Lincoln was a leader who was made, not born.

No doubt he came into the world with great gifts, including a piercing intelligence, great sensitivity, and a strong physical constitution. But there was no guarantee in Kentucky in 1809 or Illinois in 1832 or even Washington, D.C. in 1861 (after all, when Lincoln became president, he had never managed anything larger than a two-person law office and he had done rather poorly at that) that he would become the president we so admire and long for in our own turbulent moment today.

No, Lincoln grew into an effective leader. Some of this growth happened during his journey to the White House as he became a man, a lawyer, a husband, a father, and a budding (intensely ambitious) politician. But much of his development occurred in the extraordinary crucible of the Civil War. When the man met the moment.

This part of his journey--and thus the future of the United States--was shaped by several lessons that Lincoln, who was always a keen student and teacher of himself and his own experience, learned as president.

The first was the importance of understanding one's own significance on a larger stage. By mid 1862, Lincoln had come to realize--partly through self-doubt and the astounding carnage of the war--that he had been given a grave purpose in the midst of a critical struggle. And out of a sense of humility, and of himself as an agent on the stage of something greater than himself or his ego, came his ability to make the choices, take the actions, give the speeches, offer the compassion that would prove vital to achieving his mission: save the Union.

A second lesson was that of suppleness of tactics--fire generals, rehire them, teach yourself military strategy, free the slaves held in rebellious states--in service to the mission. Another insight was the need to frame the stakes of the larger moment--what was at issue, what were the tradeoffs, why did it matter--for all Americans. A fourth aspect of Lincoln's leadership was his thoughtfulness, the time and energy he devoted virtually every day (and through many sleepless nights) to reflection and conversations with himself, not only about what to do but also about the ultimate meaning and worth of his actions and vision.

These lessons are as relevant for leaders from all walks of life today as they were 145 years ago. But they did come from divine inspiration. They came from the all-too-human experience of a man named Abraham Lincoln who was never made of marble.

By Nancy Koehn

 |  April 15, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Not everyone loved this man Lincoln. This is an opinion from someone who actually lived through the war atrocities committed by Union soldiers in Columbia, South Carolina, not the opinion of someone 145 years in the future.

"Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated. It may be abstractly wrong to be so jubilant, but I just can't help it. After all the heaviness and gloom of yesterday this blow to our enemies comes like a gleam of light. We have suffered till we feel savage. There seems no reason to exult, for this will make no change in our position- will only infuriate them against us. Never mind our hated enemy has met the just reward of his life.... Could there have been a fitter death for such a man? At the same hour nearby Seward's house was entered-he was badly wounded as also his son. Why could not the assassin have done his work more thoroughly? That vile Seward- he it is to whom we owe this war-it is a shame he should escape."

When the World Ended, The Diary of Emma LeConte. Diary entry Friday April 21, 1865

Posted by: Train413 | April 16, 2010 2:46 PM
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I'm a southerner, born in Georgia, who believes that It matters not why, or who he was, or what he thought or said, or even the way it was done. Or how we suffered. Though Jim Crow lived on, and still lives, to some degree, legalized slavery ended. Good God! It had ended in Mexico 35 years before. Argue all you want, but after Washington, Lincoln's years advanced the nation as no other has done.

Posted by: talbritton | April 16, 2010 6:06 AM
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With respect to JAMNEW's comment at 3:57 p.m., with all due respect, it is mistaken. No authorized Southern delegation approached Lincoln in the summer of 1864, or at any other time, offering to return to the Union in peace if he abandoned the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln did receive two visitors from Wisconsin in August 1864 (Former Governor Alexander Randall and Judge Joseph Mills). They were not southern emissaries. In discussing the political situation with them, and the concerns of the so-called "War Democrats," many of whom did not support freeing the slaves, he expressed the view that black Union soldiers, by defending the Union, had earned their freedom. Earlier that summer, a Confederate delegation had appeared in Canada, professing a desire to enter peace negotiations. But they made no offer, authorized or unauthorized, to return to the Union if Lincoln abandoned the Emancipation Proclamation, and their appearance seemed more calculated to affect Northern political opinion in the run-up to the fall election. At about the same time (July 17, 1864), two northerners (James Gilmore and James Jaquess), without negotiation authority, visited with Jefferson Davis, and discussed how peace might be had. Davis said, "The war must go on..unless you acknowledge our right to self govenment....We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we will have." In the same meeting Davis claimed that the war was not about slavery (even though on April 29, 1861, in a message to the Confederate Congress, he had expressly said that the reason for secession was the threat to slavery occasioned by the election of a Republican government). Davis remained adament about southern independance to the end. Even six months later, after the election,in January 1865, Davis only offered to enter negotiations, "with a view to secure peace to the two countries." It is simply incorrect to state that there was ever any authorized Confederate offer to return to the Union if Lincoln would abandon the Emancipation Proclamation.

Posted by: alocher | April 16, 2010 12:53 AM
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Some of the comments posted here are amazing in their ignorance, both of the direction of US history and of the actions of Abraham Lincoln.

It obviously is not worthwhile to direct these folks to the work of historians, since they prefer their family lore or perhaps their own imaginations.

For the rest of us, I suspect that one of the reasons so many respond to Lincoln is his obvious pain and truly astonishing grasp in fulfilling his duties as president. While few of us could have his intellectual gifts, unwavering honesty about the facts presented to him, and true courage, all of us can see that he had to gird himself to do this job. At such a critical time in our nation's history, the president was able to act with humility.

Posted by: thmas | April 16, 2010 12:11 AM
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The author states parenthetically: ". ..(after all, when Lincoln became president, he had never managed anything larger than a two-person law office and he had done rather poorly at that). . ."

This completely ignores Lincoln's campaign for the Senate in which he engaged Stephen Douglas in perhaps the greatest political debates in American history. The subject of the debates was slavery in the vast new territories and states and although Lincoln lost the election, he won the debates on the greatest moral and political question of the time. He was a nationally known figure.

The author is clearly a Harvard MBA-type trying to use a limited understanding of Lincoln to make a point about leadership in corporate business. She is not a serious historian.

Posted by: theduke89 | April 15, 2010 11:49 PM
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Abraham Lincoln was a great individual and an overall exceptional president, who nevertheless had some significant blemishes in his historical record. He allowed excessive repression of basic civil liberties in the "free" northern states, the largest mass execution in the nation's history, of starving native Americans who had rebelled, and should be partly responsible, as commander-in-chief, for choosing several incompetent generals in the east, especially tolerating too long McClellan's borderline insubordination.

Other than these faults, Lincoln was a great president and an astute politician. Had he lived, he would have undoubtedly been far more successful in his Reconstruction policies than Johnson was.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | April 15, 2010 11:36 PM
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You mean like the yankee ship owners and slave traders?

Posted by: jhr1 | April 15, 2010 10:46 PM
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Those who made their living by enslaving and mistreating others are in no position to complain because we failed to show them the mercy they denied others. There was a brilliant purpose for burning down Atlanta. You will never forget that as the price for your prior hate. Hate all you want. If you act on the hate, you'll pay the same price.

Posted by: seve2yoo | April 15, 2010 10:37 PM
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Honest Abe made the following comments in a debate in 1858: "I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races-that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people: and i will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races...I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Posted by: jhr1 | April 15, 2010 10:37 PM
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so he pawned the blame off on God? Typical tyrant behavior.

Posted by: jhr1 | April 15, 2010 10:18 PM
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@ JHR1: Lincoln already responded to your borderline offensive comment.

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

Posted by: irasciblecurmudgeon | April 15, 2010 10:09 PM
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"The two overriding features of Lincoln (and of all great presidents) is: (i) singleness of purpose in the moment, and (ii) self-suffering to his core over the single purpose to which he was dedicated." His sole purpose was destruction, rape, pillage and murder performed by his animal-like troops, and if he did suffer, it wasn't nearly enough.

Posted by: jhr1 | April 15, 2010 10:07 PM
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I think you barely scratch at the surface of Lincoln's two most important traits, when you said: "A fourth aspect of Lincoln's leadership was his thoughtfulness, the time and energy he devoted virtually every day (and through many sleepless nights) to reflection and conversations with himself, not only about what to do but also about the ultimate meaning and worth of his actions and vision."

The two overriding features of Lincoln (and of all great presidents) is: (i) singleness of purpose in the moment, and (ii) self-suffering to his core over the single purpose to which he was dedicated. For the 1,464 days that Lincoln served as president, measured from inception of the Civil War to his dying day, he had one goal at all times - save the union. He admitted he would do anything - whatever it was - including consigning to slavery, to save the Union. He said, "I would do that." Everything else was trial and error to achieve this singular higher purpose, to which you scholarly agreed was greater than the man, himself. If we take a modern encapsulation of the self-suffering president - the silhouette of Kennedy hunched over against the backdrop of the Oval Office curtains, head hung down in intellectual agony, as our example, one can only imagine how many times Lincoln personified that internal suffering.

While Lincoln was no great manager in his pre-presidential life, his later years of law practice were quite successful because he had proven to be a very able litigator on behalf of the railroads; who paid very handsome legal fees. Prior to that, Mr. Lincoln literally had to take chickens for legal fees. Its tough to manage a law firm when that's all your clients can afford.

Posted by: seve2yoo | April 15, 2010 9:51 PM
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That sob was and is known in the South as "the great tyrant", because that is what he was. This "father of total war" put on an obliteration clinic to which the military establishments of Europe all sent observers. Thanks a lot Abe. Rest in Pieces.

Posted by: jhr1 | April 15, 2010 9:31 PM
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Lincoln was the first proponent of Big government.Before the Civil War the states had the power,the way the constitution was set up by the Founding Fathers.

Posted by: hyroller56 | April 15, 2010 8:07 PM
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Thanks to Knaverebew for correcting the origin of the Secret Service. One jarring historical inaccuracy in a thoughtful piece.

(and the word is 'secede', not 'succeed', truthfool)

Posted by: talitha1 | April 15, 2010 7:57 PM
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There is no doubt in the minds of many people around the world that Abraham Lincoln was a great man by all the human standards of his time and of all times. Yet in a democracy no ruler can be better than or worse than the people he leads for more than the duration of an election cycle; if better they will bring him down to their level, and if worse they would trade him for other more in tune with their worldview. The fact that he was assassinated is more a reflection on an outliner than is a population central tendency.

Posted by: abrahamhab1 | April 15, 2010 7:04 PM
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Posted by: bennettr1

Regarding the next to last sentence, surely the author meant to write, "But they did not come from divine inspiration."

| April 15, 2010 3:03 PM


Yes, I am sure that is what she meant to write, and I'm also sure that Lincoln would disagree with her.

Posted by: theduke89 | April 15, 2010 6:44 PM
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how dare they evan put a picture of Abe and obama in the same paper

Posted by: samuellenn | April 15, 2010 6:39 PM
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is this woman a what? professor of what at the harvard business school?

Ms Koehn

Go back to school, learn history and learn how to write on more than than a 10th grade level. geez

Posted by: JohnAdams1 | April 15, 2010 5:53 PM
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What's with the weird picture of the author? Did she take that picture of herself using her phone?

Posted by: inkblot | April 15, 2010 5:32 PM
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Ms Koehn:
Anyone who has spent significant time in or near the "Land of Lincoln" certainly does not think of the marble face of the Lincoln memorial when recalling Lincoln. When I was a student in Illinois, Lincoln was a favorite topic of most teachers. At least once each year we had some lesson based on Lincoln. Of course, Lincoln's birthday was also a state holiday; therefore, it behooved us to know something about the man who gave us this day away from school besides that he presided over our country during the war between the states.
That said and as you mention, Lincoln most certainly was a self-made man, always learning, always wanting to learn more. For me it is that desire, in light of his many failures, which makes him an American hero.

Posted by: giggles29401 | April 15, 2010 5:30 PM
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Actually, Chaotician wrote eloquently and in no way appeared to be in panic or particularly leftist unless "panic" now means "reason" and "leftist" now means "patriot".

His omission of MLK, Jackie Robinson and even Reagan makes perfect sense since the GOP of today isn't their party, either (although I can make a case that Reagan's lovefests in Bitburg and Philadelphia MS started the decent of the GOP into its current state).

Posted by: howie14 | April 15, 2010 5:09 PM
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Good piece, but the writing style of Ms. Koehn gets in the way of her making an effective argument or point. As a historian at Harvard's Business School, I find it difficult to believe her peers haven't already pointed out the convoluted style of her sentence structure. Trying to make three to four points in a single sentence by inserting side thoughts in parentheses and sidebars is unnecessary and distracting to the reader. WaPo please tell me your editors have the courage to give its writers and contributors constructive criticism before their pieces are published...

Posted by: meld14 | April 15, 2010 4:36 PM
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Being a direct descendant of Mr. Lincoln's 19th century version of "War on Terror", I feel compel to put my two cents in...he was a very hands-on commander-in-chief and assisted in implementing a strategic plan to include a war against women, children and immigrants. The draft was introduced in his administration. The loss of life was well over 500,000 and the impact of the trauma of the civil war was felt economically, emotionally and physically for five generations. That was well into the 20th century (late 1960s). Even his son, Robert knew that he was a politician first not a humanitarian.

Posted by: Greatlady42 | April 15, 2010 4:35 PM
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relax. first of all with rhetoric like that, you were never a republican, more so a conservative. you are in panic mode because teh majority of American people do not think like you and that scares you. I understand you have to run to your washington post, msnbc, and other usually very leftist based views to get your fix from the others who think like you. I notice you didn't mention anything about Reagan, MLK Jr, Jackie Robinson, and others who wore the republican banner for true liberty. The fact is, the people you blast are the same people who want all people to be treated equally regardless of religion, race, gender, and when they call out bigots, the likes of you start calling them hate mongers because you don't want to see the truth for what it is.....stop wearing your hate colored glasses and look for teh light of truth.....as of now you really are not fooling anyone but yourself by saying you are or have been anything but a leftist/statist.

Slim, you wrote "No man is more responsible for the government you have today than Abraham Lincoln." what in the heck is that suppossed to mean???? Go read about a man named Woodrow Wilson and you will see why our government is like it is today. Wilson is no doubt one of the most horrible presidents we have ever had and started the path of big government and the Cradle to grave government coddling mentality.

Homework people.....do your homework.

Good day.

Posted by: tsch38301 | April 15, 2010 4:00 PM
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A comment on StillALiberal's comment, in 1864 the Confedrate states approached Lincoln with a compromise that would end the Civil war peacefully. The compromise consisted of the Confederate states coming back to the Union in exchage for slavery continuing in those states, no expansion of slavery, and the return of runaway slaves, particularly the slaves that had become Union soldiers. Lincoln, whose opinion of blacks at the beginning of the Civil War reflected the general opinion of the times among non slaveholders said, "If I returned these brave men to slavery, I should be damned to hell for all times". Lincoln rejected the South's peace offer and instead offered a plan to give voting rights to black Union soldiers and educated blacks.

Posted by: JAMNEW | April 15, 2010 3:57 PM
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Before the age of Lincoln succeeding from Union was used as a form of disapproval of the Federal mandates. If we still had such a concept now my state IN could of succeeded over a thing like The Iraq war in my view this would resulted in a rudder of sorts on foreign policy overreach. If the government knew there were Repercussions for their actions in foolhardy patriotism JUST TO GET VOTES we could herd bad leaders to good policy

Posted by: truthfool | April 15, 2010 3:48 PM
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to chaotician i love you i couldnt have said it better even though i have never been nor shall i ever be a republican. I love this country so much i am leaving it rather than endure any more political crap which permeates this america i love. adios

Posted by: coolgolf | April 15, 2010 3:46 PM
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It's an interesting thing about Lincoln that, early-on as president-elect, he put out word to Republicans that there would be no compromise with the South on the issues of the 1860 campaign; he had won as president and he wanted to carry out his agenda as he saw it.

Could there have been some compromise with the South other than through a destructive war, and afterwards caused white resentments which led to 100 years of Jim Crow laws afterwards? We'll never know.

And that's the legacy of Lincoln also.

Posted by: stillaliberal | April 15, 2010 3:37 PM
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"So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

I think that sums up the article...

Posted by: Stevida | April 15, 2010 3:35 PM
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"For most Americans, this image is not a photograph of the president's careworn face in 1863 or 1865, but rather the 19-foot marbled statue of the Great Wise Leader in the Lincoln Memorial."

Spoken like an easterner. For most Americans I'll bet "the picture we each carry around in our heads of Lincoln" is on the penny.

Posted by: giscone | April 15, 2010 3:28 PM
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No man is more responsible for the government you have today than Abraham Lincoln.

Posted by: slim2 | April 15, 2010 3:11 PM
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Regarding the next to last sentence, surely the author meant to write, "But they did not come from divine inspiration."

Posted by: bennettr1 | April 15, 2010 3:03 PM
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"...the party fermenting rebellion and secession from the union, the party that is flagrantly racist, the party of intolerance and hatred, a party of dogmatic ideology unwilling or unable to admit any mistakes much less learn from them, a party willing to destroy the nation and its peoples if it cannot have the power to impose his crippling ideology upon the people."

Picky, picky, picky

Posted by: LeePefley1 | April 15, 2010 2:45 PM
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The Secret Service was originally formed to combat counterfeit currency. It did not assume responsibility for protecting the President until 1902 in repsonse to the previous year's assassination of President McKinley.

Posted by: knaverebew | April 15, 2010 2:33 PM
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It is one of the ironies of our times that the party largely created by Lincoln, a man that was supple, intellectual, and a man willing to admit his mistakes and learn from them; a party that survived by virtue of a split in the then dominant parties, that was led by the man, Lincoln, willing to endure a Civil War to "preserve" the Union, a party that "freed" the slaves in the rebellious South... is now the party fermenting rebellion and secession from the union, the party that is flagrantly racist, the party of intolerance and hatred, a party of dogmatic ideology unwilling or unable to admit any mistakes much less learn from them, a party willing to destroy the nation and its peoples if it cannot have the power to impose his crippling ideology upon the people. The "new" Republican party scorns intelligence, ridicules patience and acceptance, repudiates the likes of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Stevenson, Buckley, Lincoln, Jefferson in favor of little men like Cheney, Bush,Limbaugh, Beck, McConnell, Steel and sad women like Palin, Backmann, and Cheney. Falwell set out to take over a mainstream political party... and he succeeded! The so-called Republicans are a characature of the Grand Old Party, a rump bastardization of that party, an insult to the name and the tradition! I am ashamed to have carried that banner for over 30 years and it is so soiled, I want never to hear or see a Republican again, especially anywhere in public service!!

Posted by: Chaotician | April 15, 2010 2:23 PM
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