Better Angels of Our Nature: Lincoln's First Inaugural & School Leadership
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
(A. Lincoln, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861)
Successful school leaders believe in the power of good people to make a difference. The iconic phrase, “better angels of our nature,” stated in President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, one hundred and fifty years ago, expressed his belief and hope that people will do what is best. The American tragedy, the Civil War, lasted four years. But in the end, Lincoln was right. The “better angels of our nature” succeeded, a vision of union, democracy, and emancipation prevailed. This is a lesson for all school leaders, from principals to teacher leaders. Success does not occur without toil, or just because one is pursuing a noble cause. However, if the school or district team remains steadfast and together, success will likely result if the “calling” evokes meaning among those who have a stake in the organization’s mission. Lincoln knew this when he wrote the First Inaugural. Two points illuminate his thinking.
Gaining Support Through Collaboration
First, he collaborated to gain support for the March 4th address. The inspirational, but conciliatory final paragraph of the address (that opened this blog post), resulted from teaming with future Secretary of State, William Seward. Seward believed that Lincoln needed to tone down the speech to keep loyal southern unionists on the side of the federal government (Alvy and Robbins, Learning From Lincoln, ASCD, 2010, p. 24). In addition to Seward, Lincoln shared drafts of the speech with many others, seeking advice and support, as he crafted the final product. Interestingly, many individuals who initially questioned whether a local politician from Illinois could succeed as president began to change their views after reading Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.
Stand Up for Your Beliefs
Second, when formulating the speech, Lincoln used a strategy that can help all school leaders: emphasize and articulate what you believe in, not only what you are against. The objective is not to ignore what you oppose, or think is wrong; just make sure your audience also knows what you stand for! Substantial ideas, what you believe in—based on sound research evidence and/or social justice principles—should be celebrated. Harold Holzer, effectively makes this point in his book Lincoln, President Elect, by citing the research of the great Lincoln historian, Douglas L. Wilson,
Wilson has convincingly argued that after carefully reconsidering his early drafts [of the inaugural address], Lincoln chose to use his inaugural not to rebut others’ arguments for the right to secede but to affirm his own belief in the inviolability of the Union. (Holzer, Simon & Schuster, 2008, p. 440)
Finally, when formulating this blog post I could not help but think of a young teenage girl who lived a century after Lincoln and yet, like Lincoln, expressed hope and a belief in people, at a time when others would have expressed only despair. Anne Frank, in 1944 stated, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart.” Successful school leaders begin their own journeys of hope and decency by embracing, celebrating, and believing in, the promise of students and teachers to change their schools, and the world.