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Lecture honors Lincoln’s legacy

Meg Handelman | Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In honor of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Yale professor Steven Smith defended the legendary president’s “constitutional” leadership style at the “Lincoln’s Constitution” lecture Tuesday.

“There is virtual consensus that Abraham Lincoln was an exemplary leader, but there are lessons to be drawn on his style of leadership,” Smith said.

Smith, who published an anthology of Lincoln’s writings in 2012, said the self-constraint Lincoln exercised specifically with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the outlawing of secession exemplify his constitutional leadership.

“Lincoln’s distinctive style of leadership can be usefully contrasted with three others,” Smith said.

These three models, he said, are Machiavellian leadership, charismatic leadership and progressive leadership.

Smith said Machiavellian leaders are realistic, pragmatic and willing to do what it takes to get a job done and earn praise from the people.
“A Machiavellian leader must value glory, fame and honor above all else,” he said.

The second model, charismatic leadership, is associated with German leader Max Weber, Smith said. This faith-based model prizes passionate leaders who maintain a sense of responsibility.

Smith said the progressive model of leadership requires a leader to go beyond the law and above politics to lead a people.

“The idea that politics should be removed from the messy process of democracy and become a science has been embraced by progressives,” he said.

Although Lincoln embodied some qualities of each of the three models, Smith said his constitutional leadership style differs from other leadership models.

Lincoln wrestled with the problems posed by the limitation of powers constitutional leadership inevitably brought, Smith said, which he summarized by quoting a July 4, 1861, speech by the President.

“‘Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?'” Smith said.

This quote represents Lincoln as a constitutional leader who valued the letter of the law above his own beliefs and believed government must fulfill the function of protecting each person’s right to use or misuse their freedom as they see fit, Smith said.

Though Lincoln is known for extraordinary use of his powers during wartime, including the suspension of habeas corpus, censorship of the press and delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation, Smith said the president was merely doing what was necessary to help the nation during an extremely trying period.

“Constitutional government is bound government,” Smith said. “Lincoln rejected the idea that politics is the domain of following one’s own private, moral commitments. He always submitted his commitments to the priority of law.”

Above all, Smith said constitutional governance necessitates devotion to the law, a commitment Lincoln realized fully as president.

“It is important that leaders understand the importance of invoking the Constitution and showing the constitutional authority for what they are doing in even the most radical moments,” Smith said. “We often forget that we have to have the Constitution behind us.”

Contact Meg Handelman at [email protected]