Coda: Letters from Lincoln
By Douglas A. Hicks
America has never been more divided than it was in April of 1865. After Confederate troops had abandoned their capital city, President Abraham Lincoln entered Richmond, Virginia, on foot, clothed in simple attire and accompanied by his twelve-year-old son Tad.
In Richmond, a statue of Lincoln and his son commemorates this visit with words from his second inaugural—words that reflect our current-day hopes: “To bind up the Nation’s wounds.”
A journalist wrote this about Lincoln’s tour of Richmond: “He walked through the streets as if he were a private citizen, and not the head of a mighty nation. He came not as a conqueror, not with bitterness in his heart, but with kindness. He came as a friend, to alleviate sorrow and suffering—to rebuild what has been destroyed.”
Lincoln embodied the virtue of magnanimity—what Aristotle called the moderating quality between vanity and excessive humility. Magnanimity, the quality of being generous and respectful toward one’s opponents, isn’t a word heard a lot in Washington. It is not the approach that either political party took in the elections, nor was it the tone of the presidential transition.
Yet now is the time, at the moment of presidential inauguration, for that to change. The new president can set the tone by how he reaches out to those who oppose him. Those who will work against President Donald Trump also face a critical choice of how to frame their disapproval—and their own vision for the country.
If leadership is to be more than mere power wielding, as the political scientist James MacGregor Burns wrote, then leaders must respect the humanity of their followers. Leaders must pursue not only their own interests but, at the same time, work to meet followers’ wants and needs.
But why should President Trump, or those who oppose him, bother to be more than power wielders? An idealistic answer might be that our leaders want what is best for the people, and so they will magnanimously cooperate to serve the public interest.
A more realistic answer acknowledges that although the president has a tremendous amount of power, it is not absolute and he must find ways to influence followers beyond his formal power. That is, in order to lead effectively, he must gain and exercise informal power as well, including that which can only be earned through respect given by citizens and other leaders. The power of relationships, networks, and social capital cannot be underestimated.
Further, there is still another kind of power. It is moral authority. It is the power that comes from being on the side of justice and mutual respect. How Trump and those opposing him will appeal to justice is more than a question of idealism—it has to do with the capacity to shape the country’s future. That is why citizens working for causes they believe in play a significant role in the current moment.
So how can President Trump lead us toward a healthy political system, and how can others follow suit? It will require a sea change in attitudes, words, and actions from all sides. We need not expect the president or congressional leaders from either party to make this shift out of mere goodwill or from some sort of conversion experience. Instead, we can hope that they will realize—eventually—that getting things done in Washington will require exercising both informal and moral power. At the same time, citizens can influence the political process—exercising their own social capital and moral leadership.
Douglas A. Hicks is dean and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University.