The latest TIME cover story — coinciding with coverage of the final days of this year’s election campaign and the pending release of Steven Spielberg’s latest film — focuses on Abraham Lincoln and his approach to the nation’s top job. Even the 16th president’s biggest fans might forget the political motivations surrounding much of his work.
It is tempting in times of great political strife and division—like Lincoln’s and our own—to pine for leaders who transcend politics. But the success of the 16th President teaches that hard times are precisely when political dexterity is needed most. Politics is the machinery by which we meet tough challenges. Lincoln drilled this idea into his closest aides so thoroughly that they could channel his philosophy after he was gone. “Every war is begun, dominated and ended by political considerations,” explained John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s faithful secretaries. “War and politics, campaign and statecraft, are Siamese twins, inseparable and interdependent.”
Americans of Lincoln’s day certainly pined for something more than his seemingly small-minded attention to politics. In the midst of the greatest crisis the nation had ever faced, Lincoln spent dozens of hours each week painstakingly distributing the rapidly growing number of federal jobs at his disposal. “He seems to me to be fonder of … patronage, and personal questions, than of the weightier matters of empire,” complained the celebrated author and attorney Richard Henry Dana. In August 1862, as the failure of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was bringing the Union’s military fortunes to their darkest pass, Lincoln nevertheless devoted huge blocks of time to selecting tax collectors authorized by the first internal-revenue act.
Why? Because he realized that by giving plums to exactly the right members of the opposition Democrats, the right Irish immigrants, the right Methodists—even the friends of influential newspaper editors—he could bind them more tightly to his shaky Union coalition.
It’s interesting to ponder whether today’s politicians will learn the wrong lessons from this piece of Honest Abe’s historical record.