Abraham Lincoln, at a truly critical moment in American history, presented to a troubled and divided nation a clear and commanding vision: that the United States of America was ‘a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th 1809, in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky, in the new United States of America: a twelve-year-old nation state whose independence had been recognised by its former colonial master, Britain, in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, following the rebel territory’s military victory over British forces in America in 1781. The new nation state consisted of only thirteen states, all clustered on the Eastern seaboard of the sub-continent – and Abraham’s birthplace, Kentucky, wasn’t even one of them at the time. After the revolution, inhabitants of the territory known as ‘Kentucky County’ in the State of Virginia, east of the Appalachian Mountains, petitioned to become an independent state. America was beginning to expand westward from the coastal ‘Thirteen Colonies’, established by predominantly English settlers in the seventeenth century.
From backwoodsman to barrister
Kentucky’s independence was granted in 1792, making Kentucky the fifteenth state to join the new union (Vermont had become the fourteenth state – the first addition to the original Thirteen Colonies – in 1791.) Shawnee and Cherokee Indians attacked the settlers of Kentucky from the outset to protect their traditional hunting grounds; Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather was killed. His father scraped a living as a boy labourer, growing up to become a farmer and carpenter – respected in the local community of settlers, but still dirt poor. Lincoln was born in one-room log cabin. When the family moved to Indiana (adopted as the nineteenth state of the union in 1816) when Abraham was seven years old, their first home was a rudimentary three-sided shelter, protected by a permanently-lit fire on the open side. They lived off wild game until they were able to establish their farm. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine. He attended school only haphazardly (and poorly-clothed) but educated himself from borrowed books, studying at the end of each day’s labours on the farm. He went on to teach himself law, and passed his bar examinations at the age of 27. In 1847 he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Whig. In 1856, he joined the new Republican Party, founded two years earlier on an anti-slavery platform. Abraham Lincoln was to become the first Republican president of the United States in 1860. The issue of slavery immediately threatened to split the United States in two: the American Civil War was about to begin.
The moral issue is the core issue
Abraham Lincoln started his presidency of the United States of America with an understandably conservative position: he was simply desperate to hold the United States together. The new nation’s radical experiment in republican government was in danger of fragmenting into a collection of loosely associated states; of ceasing to be a nation. Lincoln set out at first only to prevent the secession of the Southern States, and preferred not to address the issue of slavery in states where it was long-established. Deeply as he loathed the institution of slavery itself, he at first sought only to prevent the spread of slave ownership into new territories as America expanded to the west. As the American Civil War progressed, he realised that the moral issue was in fact the core issue; that the pragmatic solution of merely holding the states together was no solution. The vision that he offered was suddenly crystal clear in his own mind, as it would soon be to the nation as a whole: ‘a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’
Leadership visions for ordinary mortals
A great vision for any organisation is both simple and bold, but it need not be as ‘grand’ as this. The question is simply, what is any leader leading their team or organisation for? There will be targets to be achieved (and directions to be set), but these are the essential running, the unavoidable management of any business. A vision is something else: an overriding sense of purpose, a raison d‘etre, a genuine corporate identity. ‘Boldness’ is, after all, a matter of degree – but a vision, by definition, is something that everybody in the organisation can grasp; a simple answer that can instantly be given to the question, ‘What are we trying to achieve?’
Abraham Lincoln is featured in Section 2 of History Lessons: ‘Boldness of Vision’.