Juxtaposing the Leadership Qualities
of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis
Emerging from the smoke of warfare were two unique men, whose differing viewpoints were but a representation of the opinions and beliefs of the masses they led. President Abraham Lincoln of the United States and President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States, took center stage in this epic conflict that forever changed the course of history. While both Lincoln and Davis shared many attributes that made them powerful leaders, they also had obvious differences when it came to their "style" of governing. Lincoln was a negotiator and a delegator, while Davis was an uncompromising micro-manager. Regardless of their differences, both men saw themselves as the embodiment of what the United States was ultimately destined to become.
At the onset of succession, both Lincoln and Davis jockeyed for position in their respective nations. Jefferson Davis conducted himself as the true leader of a new nation. As Historian William Cooper points out in his fantastic biography, Jefferson Davis: American, Davis hosted an open house at the Confederate White House, and was inaugurated as President of the newly founded Confederate States of America on the grounds of the Virginia capital. This ceremony gave a sense of legitimacy and prestige to the new nation. To add to the luster of the occasion, Davis was inaugurated on the birthday of George Washington, and underneath a giant statue of that very man who embodied the revolutionary ideas that the Confederacy deeply embraced. During his inaugural address, Davis made numerous remarks that personified the South’s revolutionary ideals. “We hope to perpetuate the viewpoints of our revolutionary fathers,” Davis continued by stating, “To show ourselves worthy of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the Patriots of the revolution, we must emulate the heroic devotion which made reverse to them by the crucible in which their patriotism was defined” (Cooper 401). Davis worked hard to ensure that the Generals under his command, and the public at large understood that the crisis at hand was much more than a simple civil war, but that it was in reality a war of independence. Davis reiterated the comments of his inaugural address on numerous occasions throughout his time in office.
To undermine the Union’s efforts, Davis also embarked on a crusade to expose what he believed was a tyrannical government. Davis said, “Humanity shudders at the appalling atrocities which are being daily multiplied under the sanction of those who have obtained temporary possession of power in the United States” (Cooper 438). President Davis also labored unceasingly in labeling the Union leaders and soldiers as men without a conscious, that enjoyed plundering, murdering, and defiling the Southern way of life. This would prove effective in swaying the public’s opinion of the Union soldiers. Jefferson Davis also employed this argument in defending slavery. He argued many times that the Union was determined to enslave the Confederacy, and eliminate the institution that the South greatly depended on. Davis stated, “Fellow citizens, no alternative is left you but victory or subjugation, slavery and the utter ruin of yourselves, your families and your country” (Cooper 481). Even when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Davis attacked it head on by claiming, “Cannot we, who have been raised with our Negroes and know how to command them, make them more efficient than the Yankees can?” (Cooper 555).
Perhaps the most important and effective thing President Davis did to boost morale and public opinion was the fact that he was visible to the soldiers and to the general public. Davis embarked on several train trips throughout the infant nation, and he gave countless speeches at virtually every stop. As simple an act as this was, it greatly motivated and rejuvenated the public’s view of their cause. Davis understood the importance of portraying confidence and determination to the public he led. At every stop, Davis worked tirelessly as he encouraged his Generals, motivated troops, and called for new volunteers. Up until the end of the war, Jefferson Davis was greeted at nearly every stop with enthusiastic cheers and applause. It was not until the end of the war when Davis was received with a lethargic salute from an exhausted and demoralized army, and was asked to leave by the general public, so that they would not appear loyal to their leader when the Union Army arrived.
To the North, Abraham Lincoln labored equally as hard to persuade the public he lead. Before his inauguration, Lincoln took advantage of the long train ride from Springfield to Washington. At virtually every city along the path, Lincoln’s train would make a stop so the people would be able too see and hear the awkwardly looking man they elected president. Lincoln would give brief speeches to the masses from the back of the train and then continue on the journey to the capital. By doing this, Lincoln was able to personally spread his message to the massive crowds that would gather to hear him.
After he took office in the early part of 1861, Lincoln was bombarded with vital decisions that required immediate action. State after state had left from the Union, and war was on the horizon. People began to look to their new leader in hopes that he would be able to avert the oncoming crisis. Lincoln knew that the public was not fully prepared to go to war with the South. Over the years the Southerners had threatened succession many times. Many in the public believed this was just another one of the many Southern threats, and that the states would eventually return on their own. The morning after his inauguration however, Lincoln faced a truly difficult dilemma with Fort Sumter. The soldiers, stationed at the fort, were in desperate need of supplies and additional troops. Lincoln knew that if he sent more soldiers that the South would view his action as hostile. After debating with his cabinet, Lincoln decided to send a ship carrying provisions only to aid the fort. The South still viewed this action as hostile, and immediately seized the fort. The war had begun. The attack of Fort Sumter proved very beneficial because the public saw this as an unprovoked and deliberate attack on the Union. Lincoln now had the backing of the masses that he needed to wage a war.
At the beginning of the war, most saw it as a simple conflict that would be resolved in a matter of weeks. As the war waged on, many viewed Lincoln as incompetent. Most of the Border States wanted nothing to do with the Lincoln administration, and often accused him of being a tyrant. As Historian David Donald points out in his fantastic biography, Lincoln, the President tried desperately to convince the people that this war was not a war for Southern independence, but that it was “an insurrection of combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings” (Donald 302). Lincoln never recognized the Southern States as a Confederacy. He viewed them as simply a rebellion, and made sure he convinced others of that fact as well.
The issue of slavery also crept its way into the public arena. Debates were constant on the issue. In this area, Lincoln was a master at understanding the public’s readiness for emancipation. Lincoln knew that he had vowed to fight slavery in both his presidential campaigns and inaugural address. The public expected their president to act. Many of his closest allies urged him to act quickly in freeing the slaves. Lincoln however, understood that it would require baby steps to correctly emancipate the slaves. At first, Lincoln recommended colonizing slaves, and even offered compensation for slave holders. Many hailed this proposal “as a master-piece of practical wisdom and sound policy” (Donald 347). In reality, this proposal did little to actually free slaves. It was not until January 1, 1863 when slavery was finally delivered a fatal blow. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made all slaves throughout the entire nation forever free. Newspaper writers declared it “the greatest proclamation ever issued by man” (Donald 377). Lincoln’s proclamation was hailed by most Northerners as truly magnificent. Lincoln eventually declared it the crowning achievement of his administration.
With emancipation official, Lincoln worked hard to sway public opinion in his favor. He set out on a mission to write numerous public letters to persuade the public to elect him for a second term. Due to the fact that Lincoln had delivered on his promise of emancipation, and that the war had taken a turn for the better, Lincoln was easily re-elected to a second term in 1864. He would spend the next year preparing the nation for eventual reconstruction, and bringing about a quick end to the bloody conflict.
When it came to political leadership, Davis and Lincoln could not be more opposite. While Abraham Lincoln was more delegating, Jefferson Davis was more micro-managing. He constantly wanted to be informed about everything occurring on the battlefields, as well as everything happening in political, and social arenas. Even though Davis made the majority of the decisions, he did not decide on them quickly. He was the type of person who consulted with everyone at his disposal before he chose a course of action, which meant that quick decisions were highly unlikely. Many of the Generals in the field seemed to have a problem with Davis’s style of management. General Joseph Johnston would intentionally leave President Davis and his advisers in the dark when it came to Johnston’s military plans. This of course made a control-driven person like Davis upset.
Along with the Generals, many cabinet members within the Davis Administration disliked the President’s management style. One of those members was Secretary Randolph of the War Department, who found Davis to be somewhat of a control freak. When Randolph attempted to send orders to General Holmes in Arkansas to cross the Mississippi river, Davis rebuked him stating that any movement of significance or any decision of importance had to go directly through him. As a result, Secretary Randolph resigned from his position stating, “Conceiving that I can no longer be useful in the War Department, I hereby resign my commission as Secretary of War” (Cooper 446). Davis tended to justify his need for constant control by claiming that he wanted those under him to give input on a particular discussion, but that he needed to be the decision maker.
The only exception in Davis’ mind was Robert E. Lee, in whom the President had invested complete and total trust. Lee did not receive the same amount of coaching and criticism that others leaders had received. This was most likely due to the fact that both Lee and Davis shared the same motivations and viewpoints in terms of military strategy. In the President’s mind, General Lee had done more than enough to win everlasting trust from his administration. Even after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the President supported his General by stating, “To ask me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command…is to demand an impossibility” (Cooper 487). There is little doubt that the President viewed Lee in a different light than he viewed others. Davis felt as though he had struck gold with Lee, while he found nothing but apathy and discontent from many of his other leaders.
Another part of Davis’s political agenda was addressing the issue of conscription. The Davis Administration faced the complex task of keeping armies supplied with soldiers, so that they could keep up with the Union’s massive numbers. Original enlistments had only been for one year, and that time would not be enough. To remedy the problem, Davis ordered conscriptions of all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35. Those already enlisted would have their terms extended to three years. Eventually, many soldiers began complaining that they were needed back home to take care of their plantations and slaves. Davis’s answer to this was to create the “Twenty Negro Law,” which stated that if a soldier had twenty or more slaves, they were exempt from service. Many argued that this action turned the war into a poor man’s war, since only a rich person could have twenty or more slaves. Davis however held to his guns, praising the men who were defending the noble cause of independence.
In contrast, President Lincoln was much more patient and delegating of a leader. From the start of his first term, President Lincoln strived to diversify his cabinet, which consisted of just as many democrats as republicans. Lincoln tried very hard to find specific individuals that he felt would be best suited for the department they were assigned. Constructing his cabinet in this fashion brought on a lot of disputation, and argument among the cabinet members, but it also helped to bring all issues to the table. President Lincoln needed the diversity if he was to succeed as president, and he did everything he could to win support on both sides of the political spectrum.
For the most part, Lincoln was a very forgiving and accepting leader. Many times he would be ridiculed by a General or cabinet member, but would not retaliate in any way. Lincoln also allowed those under him to make decisions they felt best. In contrast to Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was good at delegating tasks, and then letting those he trusted do their assigned jobs. This was especially true with his Secretary of State William Seward, and with many of his Generals. Lincoln fully trusted Seward with the administration’s foreign policy. When it came to his Generals, Lincoln would show as much support as he could, and would try not to mix military and politics. There were many instances when the military would view Lincoln as incompetent. Among the biggest Lincoln haters was General George McCellan. McCellan’s view of the President was very harsh at times. He felt that Lincoln was asking for the impossible. He often stated, “The President is an idiot” and “Isn’t he a rare bird” (Donald 319). To this Lincoln would show continued support for the men he had chosen.
Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus is another important example of his political leadership abilities. At the beginning of the war, Lincoln took the initiative by arresting anyone who appeared to have ties with the Confederacy. While many ridiculed the President for acting unconstitutionally, Lincoln held his ground and argued that it was within his power to suspend Habeas Corpus. In the first nine months of the war, Lincoln arrested 864 people who were believed to be a threat to the Union. While many opponents viewed this act as unnecessary, Lincoln believed that he was acting prudently, and that it was absolutely necessary at that time.
Foreign policy was a surprisingly important issue to both presidents. Both Lincoln and Davis worked very hard to push their agendas and beliefs to the other nations that had American interests. Jefferson Davis viewed his foreign agenda as one that tried to win the support of both Britain and France. Davis sent ambassadors to both nations, hoping that they could persuade both nations to offer military aid in their cause. Davis knew that his bargaining chip would be the cotton that the South produced. Both Great Britain and France depended greatly on the product, and did not want to loose the commodity. Davis also believed that the presence of the Union naval blockade would convince both nations that the only way to secure cotton was to join in the fight.
Unfortunately for Davis, both Great Britain and France would not support their war efforts. The fact that the Confederacy was a nation that protected slavery greatly hindered their efforts. Great Britain and France simply could not ally themselves with a country that claimed to be fighting for its independence, but oppressed an entire race of people. After exhausting all avenues, Davis eventually abandoned any and all hopes of receiving foreign aid. It was not until 1864 that Davis, seeing his nation and cause in grave danger, decided to sacrifice the institution of slavery in hopes that Europe would finally help. Regrettably for Davis it would be too little too late.
As for Lincoln, he too faced many problems in terms of foreign relations. For the most part, Lincoln would defer all foreign matters to his Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed to do a great job. There were however, a few situations that required Lincoln’s intervention. Among these was the Trent Affair, when two ambassadors of the Confederacy were seized by a Union blockade. Both ambassadors happened to be on a British ship when seized, and when news of this reached England they became enraged. The British government argued that the capture of Confederate ambassadors onboard a British vessel was a direct violation of international law. In response, Great Britain threatened to resort to war if both Confederate ambassadors were not released and permitted to travel to England. Upon hearing this, the Lincoln Administration began shifting into damage control mode. Secretary Seward recognized the gravity of the situation, and immediately recommended releasing the ambassadors at once. While this was a hard pill to swallow, Seward’s idea proved to be the right one. The proposition of fighting the British and the rebel Southerner’s at the same time was a virtual impossibility for the North.
The problems between Great Britain and France would continue for Lincoln. The Union blockade of Confederate exports was a source of great agitation for the European powers, which depended greatly on the Confederate cotton. Lincoln however would not budge. He also maintained his policy of deferring to Seward on foreign affairs. Seward’s ability to negotiate with other nations kept most of the major problems from escalating. The big break for the Lincoln Administration came when the Russian Czar offered assistance by sending numerous fleets to support the Union. The Russian’s presence served as a large deterrent to both France and Britain.
It is clear that both Lincoln and Davis faced difficulties in persuading other nations to come to their aid. While Davis battled to gain British and French support, Lincoln was trying to keep them away. In the end, slavery seems to have been the main deterrent. Both Britain and France simply could not give aid to a country that supported slavery. This obvious factor was greatly magnified when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which virtually guaranteed that the Confederates would receive no foreign aid.
Presidents Lincoln and Davis will forever be remembered for different reasons. Lincoln has become immortalized as the man who preserved the Union and freed the slaves, while Davis is viewed as the rebel leader of a lost cause. These stereotypes may offer a generalization of both men, but they do not tell the whole truth. The fact remains that both Lincoln and Davis were very effective leaders. Both men gained their public’s support, they both struggled through war difficulties with stubborn Generals, and both dealt with tragedy and defeat. Lincoln’s ability to defer major decisions to his subordinates exhibits his trusting character that made him a great leader. Davis’s personality as a micro-manager may have angered some under his authority, but allowed him the luxury to analyze all major decisions. Both men struggled when it came to foreign relations and economics, but eventually it would be Lincoln who would emerge victorious in both arenas. Lincoln and Davis also exhibited a deep interest in the men they had in the field, and did everything they could to assist in their efforts. In reality, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis have each left a legacy, whether good or bad, that will forever endure as part of our heritage as a nation.