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The Beginning of Abraham Lincoln's Presidency

Abraham Lincoln began his presidency by sneaking into Washington, D.C. Because of a suspected assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland, Lincoln’s railroad car was rerouted so he arrived at a different time than what was publicly announced.

It was an inauspicious beginning to a tough job. Within a few months of Lincoln taking office, 11 states — Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida — had left the Union, and 4 more — Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware — were thinking about leaving.

The man in charge of sorting out the whole mess had received only about 40 percent of the popular vote. Although he’s now considered one of the most extraordinary men in American — and world — history, Lincoln was more of a puzzle than a leader to most Americans at the time.

How Abraham Lincoln looked and acted

Lincoln was an enormously complex person. He possessed a great sense of humor but also had an air of deep sorrow and melancholy about him (likely exacerbated by the fact that two of his four sons died before him and his wife suffered from various mental illnesses).

He was fiercely ambitious and firm of purpose. He was also modest and cheerfully ready to poke fun at himself, but sometimes he sank into deep despair and doubted his abilities. Lincoln didn’t drink at a time when many men drank to excess, was skeptical when it came to organized religion (although he professed a belief in God), and delighted in telling racy stories.

He was tall and ungainly looking (6 feet, 4 inches tall, weighing 180 pounds) with large hands and feet, and his enemies often referred to him as a gorilla or ape. He often dressed all in black and wore a stovepipe hat in which he sometimes stored his correspondence.

Lincoln spoke with a high squeak, which may have been why he kept his speeches short. He was strong, having been a champion wrestler in his youth, and at ease with the fact that he was homely.

One popular and perhaps apocryphal story about Lincoln is that when a young girl suggested he grow a beard to improve his appearance, he whimsically did so between the election and his inauguration.

What talents Lincoln brought to the presidency

Lincoln’s greatest gift may have been his ability to use people, in the best sense of the term. He could overlook people’s faults — and even their dislike of him — if he thought they had something to offer, and he did so with humor and grace.

Case in point: When a troublemaker reported to him that his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, had called the president a “damned fool,” Lincoln replied, “Then I must be one, for Stanton is generally right, and he always says what he means.”

He had plenty of need and opportunity to use his gift of getting the most out of people. Throughout his presidency, Lincoln had few close friends or advisors. His cabinet (notably William Seward, secretary of state; Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury; and Stanton, secretary of war) represented a wide range of political philosophies. The biggest thing the men had in common was their low opinion of their boss.

Fortunately, Lincoln had a talent for making his point without being confrontational. For example, he was often exasperated at the reluctance of his leading generals to fight, particularly Gen. George B. McClellan.

However, Lincoln didn’t want to be seen as micromanaging the war. So instead, he once drolly observed, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it.”

Ultimately, Lincoln was able to use his many gifts and unique personality to rally people in the North to keep fighting, first for the cause of preserving the Union and later for the cause of ending slavery.

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