The 16th president’s enduring leadership qualities—through his uplifting words in the Gettysburg Address.
Abraham Lincoln had a way about him that people could trust. In words and actions, he proved that one cannot separate the two. For this characteristic alone, President Lincoln became known to everyone as “Honest Abe,” even during wartime.
Consuming most of Lincoln’s presidency, the Civil War tested his resolve to see the conflict through and remain a man of his word, and despite the obvious personal toll it was taking on him, he stayed strong. The war was hitting the country hard, too, as pockets of the South saw Lincoln as a tyrant and the death toll—on both the Union and Confederate sides—was mounting. In the end, the war claimed 600,000 Americans, and eventually, even Lincoln would lose his life to an assassination by John Wilkes Booth.
Before Lincoln’s death, however, he gave a speech that is one of the most popular in history—the Gettysburg Address. In spite of his embattled presidency, his words in this short address lifted a nation out of the ashes of war. Delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery four months after Confederate forces were defeated, the Gettysburg Address is uplifting, profound, and uniquely American. Let’s revisit its four short paragraphs and learn about Lincoln’s leadership together.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
So much can be learned from Lincoln’s historical address, which was ultimately a dedication to the many lives lost in battle.
Lincoln had a great sense of justice.
Just like the Founding Fathers, Lincoln believed wholeheartedly that all men are created equal. The best leaders are those who see people for what they can be rather than for who they are. This concept is especially profound considering the events surrounding the Civil War, and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln believed in the power of actions over words.
In his address, he recognized that while great words could be said in memory of the soldiers who selflessly gave up their lives, their actions will be what people remember, long after what’s said has been forgotten. Lincoln was certainly a leader of action, and he’s remembered likewise. He separated himself from being simply a politician by following through on his word. He reminded people to act on their convictions and not just talk about them.
Lincoln was forward-thinking.
In the last paragraph of the Gettysburg Address, he drove home the idea that there was work yet to be done, and a renewed commitment should be made to see that a just goal doesn’t remain unfulfilled. While President Lincoln had preserved the Union, he knew that there would be more battles ahead—whether political or military—to ensure that the United States “shall not perish from the earth.” His vision did not end with his presidency or even his life. The point: A true leader understands that he or she is only part of the puzzle, and not the puzzle itself. Future generations must step up to complete it.
Read the Gettysburg Address again. What other leadership qualities do you notice? Also, who would you like to see profiled next week? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jerry is the founder and president of Family Council. He began Family Council in 1989 after a successful effort to amend the Arkansas Constitution to prevent the use of public funds for abortions. He and his wife reside in Little Rock. They have four sons.