- Expected 2 Feb 2021
A brilliant and novel examination of how Abraham Lincoln mastered the art of leadership, revealing how five men mentored an obscure lawyer with no executive experience to become America’s greatest president
“Gerhardt has devised an ingenious solution for demystifying America’s most enigmatic president.” –Russell L. Riley, UVA’s Miller Center
In 1849, when Abraham Lincoln returned to Springfield, Illinois, after two seemingly uninspiring years in the U.S. House of Representatives, his political career appeared all but finished. His sense of failure was so great that friends worried about his sanity. Yet within a decade, Lincoln would reenter politics, become a leader of the Republican Party, win the 1860 presidential election, and keep America together during its most perilous period. What accounted for the turnaround?
As Michael J. Gerhardt reveals, Lincoln’s reemergence followed the same path he had taken before, in which he read voraciously and learned from the successes, failures, oratory, and political maneuvering of a surprisingly diverse handful of men, some of whom he had never met but others of whom he knew intimately—Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, John Todd Stuart, and Orville Browning. From their experiences and his own, Lincoln learned valuable lessons on leadership, mastering party politics, campaigning, conventions, understanding and using executive power, managing a cabinet, speechwriting and oratory, and—what would become his most enduring legacy—developing policies and rhetoric to match a constitutional vision that spoke to the monumental challenges of his time.
Without these mentors, Abraham Lincoln would likely have remained a small-town lawyer—and without Lincoln, the United States as we know it may not have survived. This book tells the unique story of how Lincoln emerged from obscurity and learned how to lead.
University of North Carolina law professor Gerhardt (The Forgotten Presidents) profiles the politicians and lawyers who influenced Abraham Lincoln in this well-researched yet unfocused history. Contending that Lincoln "was not born to greatness but earned his way, his map drawn by the men, books, plays, and poetry that he took inspiration and instruction from," Gerhardt identifies five key mentors: President Andrew Jackson, Whig Party leader Henry Clay, President Zachary Taylor, and Illinois lawyers and politicians John Todd Stuart (cousin of Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Stuart) and Orville Browning. Jackson, Clay, and Taylor were strong supporters of the Union and men "always planning their next move," Gerhardt writes, while Stuart and Browning encouraged Lincoln to study law and helped to launch his political career. Gerhardt also finds similarities between Lincoln's rhetorical style and those of Jackson and Clay, and contends that "Lincoln's awed recognition of Clay's fortitude would help him again and again and again." Close looks at Whig politics and legislative battles over slavery and secession provide genuine insights, but the selection of mentors seems somewhat arbitrary and the personal dynamics between them and Lincoln are undeveloped. The result is a solid history in search of a more coherent theme.