2024-05-21 12:04 PM

President’s Day Commentary

By. Dr. Joel Schlesinger,

President’s Day commemorates the lives and accomplishments of George Washington, our nation’s first president, and Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth. As individuals and as leaders, how much did they have in common? A pair of events–Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army in 1776, and Lincoln’s leadership of the Emancipation Proclamation process–illustrate the leadership qualities of two presidents considered among the country’s best.

Washington the Leader

George Washington was an actor, in today’s terms a master of “image management.” The son of a tobacco farmer who died when he was eleven years old, Washington possessed a driving ambition, need for recognition, deep concern for reputation, sensitivity to criticism, and—the consequence of an unsettled upbringing–emotional turmoil. In response, from a young age, he carefully crafted his image. With a genius for theatre, he developed a commanding persona with custom-made uniforms, majestic horsemanship skills, and trustworthy character. Washington longed to be a British officer. Though he had no formal military training, he served on British General Braddock’s catastrophic march against the French and Indians in Pennsylvania and as a surveyor in the rough northeast territory. Had it not been for his snubbed bid to become an English officer, he might well have found himself subduing the rebellion instead of leading it.  

1775 found Washington as a leading Virginia aristocrat, among the richest men in the wealthiest colony. He had risen to such prominence due to his connection with the Fairfaxes, the result of his brother Lawrence’s marriage into the powerful Fairfax family. George built his fortune by speculating successfully in land on the frontier, employing modern farming techniques at Mount Vernon, and marrying the wealthy widow Martha Custis. With so much to lose, he was slow to join the calls for revolution. Yet when the Continental Congress moved to create an army, Washington maintained his restrained public image but, as a politically tough in-fighter, lobbied fiercely behind the scenes for command.

Perfectionistic and stoic, uncompromising and task-oriented, Washington was hard to please; trust, for him, was a “plant of slow growth.” Traveling toward Boston to assume command of the army, he confronted a thoroughly hostile environment: perhaps only one-third of the colonial population favored revolution. Another third were Tories committed to English rule, the remainder indifferent. The British army and navy were the envy of the world, and farmers sold to the British who paid more and in pound sterling for their produce. Even the colonies and Congress he served provided erratic support to the army.

Washington considered New Englanders self-indulgent, dirty, pushy, stubborn, and undisciplined—offensive to his southern agricultural culture; the troops surrounding Boston had established no systems or structures to organize and manage the army—their campsites were disgraceful. But as the year wore on he came to deeply appreciate those Yankees as smart, resourceful men who knew how to fight. Washington was neither a visionary nor great strategic planner, his strength more tactical and managerial.  He was a practical problem solver. While he won but six of his 17 encounters with the British, Washington had learned from the frontier Indians how to fight unconventionally as demonstrated first when his surprise night march and occupation of Dorchester Heights in Boston forced the British to flee the city. Likewise, his desperate night-time evacuation of New York saved the army; and his freezing Christmas Eve crossing of the Delaware and the stunning attack on the Hessians at Trenton routed the enemy and saved the revolution.

Washington learned from his experiences as the secret night-time maneuver at Boston was re-created to evacuate New York, and led to the remarkable crossing of the Delaware. He was able to adjust and adapt, at his best with his back to the wall. His majestic and charismatic presence generated the optimism that—as General Colin Powell once claimed—is a force multiplier. He led by his actions: always out among the troops, demonstrating enormous courage, sharing their privations, and relentlessly struggling to secure food, equipment, and pay for his army. Acting with honesty and integrity, the force of his personality carried the army. And he instilled a sense of transcendence—that despite their pitiable conditions, the soldiers were fighting for something larger than themselves. Following the disaster in New York, and along the humiliating winter retreat across New Jersey, faced with desertion, disease, expiring enlistments, and a lack of basic supplies, he rallied his soldiers by giving meaning to their suffering: they were at a pivotal point in history, defending home and liberty, fighting evil, securing independence. He gave them voice and a collective identity by overcoming class and geographic distinctions. He acted confidently, and always hid the really bad news. He brought them hope.

Lincoln the Leader

Abraham Lincoln was a great communicator with an inventive mind. A person of low status born on the Western frontier he had but a single year of formal schooling. He came to the White House with no relationships with the powerful eastern political elite. Called a “gorilla” by one of his Cabinet members, he was negatively perceived by the team he counted on to run government in a time of war.

Lincoln had long thought slavery wrong, yet concluded the Constitution fully protected it. With his prerogative in the Federal city, he abolished slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862; it was a start. Lincoln did not believe in social equality or that the races could easily co-exist, but he patiently sought alternatives to end it. His preferred option was deporting freed slaves to Africa or the Caribbean. He proposed that each state could vote to abolish slavery with the Federal government reimbursing owners for their losses. He reasoned the cost of doing so would be far less than that of civil war. This approach was attempted in Delaware but failed in the state legislature.

The northern whites who elected Lincoln feared freed slaves would take their jobs, flooding the labor market and working for less. Facing re-election in 1864, he worried that emancipation could cost him a second term. And he dreaded that an overall emancipation would tip the border states to the south and shift the balance on the battlefield. Most compellingly, he  feared his generals. Mainly, they had signed on to save the union, not to end slavery. Indeed, the commanding general had proposed that the army, not the president, dictate policy, and hinted at a military takeover. This triggered in Lincoln a sense of urgency to act.

Reflective, Lincoln learned from his past experiences particularly his many electoral and business failures. Because of policy, personality, and political grudges, he had considerable difficulty getting his Cabinet to pull in the same direction. His problems came, in part, at his own hand: He had chosen to include rivals and Democrats among his Cabinet appointments and the members certainly did not speak with one voice on slavery. So, he determined to handle major decisions by himself. We tend to measure political success by policy achievement. Lincoln was successful on emancipation though he had to sideline his team to get it done.

When none of his proposed slavery ending solutions took hold, Lincoln controversially resolved to draw upon the Constitution’s vaguely worded section on War Powers arguing it enabled the president to take any measure necessary to subdue rebellion. He used this as the pretext for abolishing slavery, but only in the rebellious states. Lincoln connected with others, always seeking common ground; and he understood that popular sentiment supported the war to preserve the union, not to end slavery. So, he cast the ending of slavery as a means of aiding the war effort to preserve the union. Once he had drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, he agreed to Secretary of State Seward’s request to await a Union battlefield victory before making the announcement in order to gain greater public support. That victory came at Antietam Creek, an engagement which witnessed the bloodiest day of the war. Luckily, Union soldiers had found Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s lost Special Orders 191 which detailed his army’s movements and permitted the Union Army to thwart the southern advance through Maryland. Lincoln issued the Proclamation on January 1, 1863.


George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had many things in common. They were both perceived by their peers to be people of character: value-driven men of honesty, integrity, public spirit,  positive attitude, generosity, and moderation. But character must be translated into action. Lincoln connected as a storyteller—a great communicator, Washington as an actor. They were also self-made men. Each possessed an all-consuming ambition to succeed, to become somebody; and they demonstrated an enormous willingness to learn and grow despite  limited educations. They conquered long odds with iron wills. Washington and Lincoln were transcendent: they committed to a wider cause and purpose. They understood the “larger why”, pitched in when they didn’t need to, and faced great peril: the gallows for Washington if the revolution failed and a coup or re-election loss for Lincoln. Indeed, they were risk-takers.

Both Washington and Lincoln were resilient and they bounced back: Washington lost battles—made poor strategic decisions, lost his father and dear brother when he was young. Lincoln lost elections and businesses. But they did not give up and they were aided by luck—as are all successful leaders: the Union victory at Antietam was influenced by the finding of lost Confederate orders, and Washington consistently benefitted from bad weather that foiled planned British attacks at Boston and New York.  

Despite their public successes, on a personal level, both men experienced self-doubt and insecurity. Lincoln had suffered a breakdown, and struggled with depression. Washington fought to control a severe temper, and to keep his anxiety and need for recognition and acceptance well hidden. Surprisingly, they suffered self-esteem issues, perhaps the result of their unsettled upbringings. While they projected intimacy to their closest associates, they maintained a distance. Yet both had a steely, decisive determination—they saw opportunities and seized them. They were bold, Lincoln acting on the Emancipation, and Washington saving the revolution with his attack at Trenton. Finally, each had strong organizational leadership skills: the ability to motivate and inspire others to their highest levels of productivity, innovation, and commitment. 


Yet, Washington and Lincoln were in many ways dissimilar. By 1775, Washington was held in high esteem by his peers and held status as one of the wealthiest men in the country with a reputation for courage and innovation. He carefully crafted an elite image. Lincoln, on the other hand, had low esteem and status in the eyes of the political establishment which considered him a “third rate Western lawyer” with but 39 percent of the popular vote which won him the presidency. Humble and self-deprecating, Lincoln’s exceptional technical strength was his political skill. Washington’s perceived technical skill as a strategic military leader was far less formidable.  

Both men had different comfort zones. Washington was not a man of humor or finesse, not warm and welcoming; he was more formal. Though not toxic, the culture of his army was not a uniquely fear-free environment. Lincoln connected empathetically with true humility. While Washington was an uncomfortable and ineloquent public speaker, Lincoln spoke powerfully and persuasively. Successful leaders build great teams: Washington was able to do so; Lincoln got off to a rough start with his Cabinet though things improved over time. Finally, each man used power in different ways: Washington was a charismatic and demanding figure, Lincoln a man of vision and empathy.


Like Washington and Lincoln, leaders come with varying degrees of education, experience, temperament, and status and no formula can predict who will rise to leadership; or, once there, who will succeed. Mere rank or title does not mean a leader is capable, and there is no single best way to lead. In the end, leadership is in the eye of the beholder: We the People know it when we see it. It is about the kind of people leaders are–and how they act as they seek to inspire those they lead with hope and meaning.





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