By Michael Lynch
Washington and Lincoln usually rank among the more admired presidents, but most people don’t consider them in light of each other. Presidents’ Day seems like an appropriate occasion to compare and contrast these two men who had little in common except the office and above-average height.
Interestingly, recent years have witnessed renewed historical attention to both Lincoln and Washington as leaders of men. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller on Lincoln and his cabinet turned the phrase “team of rivals” into a catchphrase, while John Ferling has argued that Washington was a much more deft political operator than other biographies have indicated. Both men displayed an ability to handle opposition, but they approached interpersonal conflict in different ways.
Ferling has written that during the Revolutionary War, Washington felt especially vulnerable to criticism. He was particularly sensitive when he thought critics were comparing him to powerful rivals, as he believed to be the case after the fall of Philadelphia, fearing a plot to oust him from command was in the works among his detractors in both Congress and the army. Lincoln faced his fair share of criticism, too, but his skin was thicker than Washington’s. If Lincoln and his rivals never constituted a true “team”—dissensions and divisions plagued the cabinet, and several of its members didn’t last the duration of Lincoln’s first term—he was nevertheless more adept at keeping discordant elements in check than the sensitive Washington.
The two men also differed in their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the art of persuasion. Washington wasn’t known for his rhetorical gifts; his most well-regarded work of prose, the Farewell Address, was partly the work of Madison in its first draft form and Hamilton in a later one. But Washington was physically imposing and formidable, and he knew how to magnify his physical qualities with a little stagecraft. When he arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, he was decked out in military uniform, prepared to make a striking impression.
And he knew how to play on an audience’s emotions by letting his formidable exterior slip a little, as he did during the unrest in the Continental Army at Newburgh in 1783. Amid reports that disgruntled officers wanted to use the army to pressure Congress over a lack of pay, Washington addressed the men at a meeting on March 15. Fumbling over a letter from a member of Congress that he intended to read to them, he donned a pair of glasses, stating, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The officers were deeply moved by this rare show of weakness from a man noted for his vigor and powers of endurance.
Gangly and awkward, Lincoln could never command a room simply by walking into it, as Washington could. What he lacked in imposing presence, he made up for with his ability to craft compelling arguments and lyrical prose. When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, one member of the audience found him “so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.” Eventually, though, the clarity of Lincoln’s ideas and the power of his words overcame the awful first impression and won his audience over. “I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities,” the eyewitness remembered. “Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.” At Newburgh, Washington used his physical presence to make up for what his prepared remarks lacked. At Cooper Union, by contrast, it was only Lincoln’s ability as a public speaker that overcame his ungainly appearance.
Michael Lynch is a research fellow of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy and teaches history at Lincoln Memorial University. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee, blogs about historical topics at Past in the Present, and is currently working on a book about the Revolutionary War in the South.