Editor’s Note: Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch are the bestselling authors of The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President—And Why It Failed, which is now available in bookstores everywhere. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
At a time of national crisis, the public craves leadership. With the country politically divided and facing a deadly pandemic with no clear end in sight, the need for competence and vision at the highest levels has never been more essential. Our future depends on it.
At his recent town hall, President Donald Trump said that the press treats him even worse than Abraham Lincoln. “I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall on Sunday night. “The closest would be that gentleman right up there,” he added, pointing to the statue of Lincoln. “They always said nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.”
History challenges this opinion and in fact, Lincoln’s character was demonstrated in his response to vitriol from his rivals. He was humble, self-deprecating, and gracious to those who attacked him. He didn’t insult his opponents; he embraced them. He insisted he was president for all Americans, even at a time of division.
Perhaps no president in American history faced more fury at a time of crisis than Abraham Lincoln. When he was elected in November 1860, the country was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. We may think our elections now are contentious, but they can’t compare to Lincoln’s. From the moment he was nominated, it got personal, one paper writing that “Lincoln is the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms, and hatchet-face ever strung upon a single frame. He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly.” It only got worse.
Two weeks before the election, the Montgomery Weekly Mail declared: “Let the South be the home of the white man, proud of his race, and proud of his race’s superiority! … If Lincoln and his free n***er outrider are elected, we must not submit.” This wasn’t just the language of political disagreement; it was the language of outright revolt. Lincoln didn’t just get dragged in the press, he was the Southerners’ mortal enemy.
Only three days after his election, South Carolina declared Lincoln’s victory a “hostile act” and began taking steps to secede from the Union. More southern states soon followed. Then the hate mail started. “There were threats of hanging him, burning him, decapitating him, flogging him,” a Lincoln colleague reported.
These weren’t just angry words. In fact, a southern secret society was planning to assassinate Lincoln before he could take the oath of office. For two years, we’ve been researching this plot for our book, “The Lincoln Conspiracy.” Lincoln had earlier shrugged off most of his death threats, but during his inaugural rail journey from Illinois to Washington, DC, he learned that a pro-slavery group in Baltimore planned to kill him on his way to the capital.
Lincoln ultimately evaded the assassins in Baltimore and arrived safely in Washington, DC. But even then, the press roasted him, The Charleston Mercury calling him “cowardly and undignified” for running from his own killers.
Several days later, with national tension at an all-time high, Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address. By then, he had firsthand experience of the anger and division in the country. He’d been demonized and insulted. He’d received death threats and thwarted an assassination plot.
Yet in Lincoln’s inaugural speech, he showed no spite. In the face of discord and rage, his speech was a plea for common American purpose. In the last lines, he said: “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield 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.”
Those words have echoed through the ages. They also set a tone and vision for Lincoln’s presidency – one that carried him through America’s greatest crisis – despite how anyone in the press treated him.
To be clear, Lincoln’s conciliatory tone didn’t mean he lacked firm beliefs. As southern states seceded, he faced enormous pressure to compromise on slavery in order to avert war. But on the most important question of whether slavery could spread to new territories joining the Union, Lincoln was inflexible. He had run for president on a platform that slavery must not spread, and he wouldn’t budge.
This particular mix of qualities – humble and gracious, but stubborn on principle – were an early indication of Lincoln’s unique leadership.
In the end, Lincoln would always take the side of hope over hatred. He would always appeal to the best in Americans, not the worst. And he did so without conceding his principles. Amidst the darkness of war, Lincoln overcame enormous opposition and reached for the light. On January 1, 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation: the first monumental step to abolish slavery in America. In so doing, he would make himself a target for assassins once again.
Honesty. Humility. Selflessness. During a time of hatred and rage, Lincoln took the side of the better angels. Under his leadership, America didn’t just survive the Civil War – it became a better nation through the struggle.
Today as we face our own crisis at a time of division – and with yet another contentious election on the horizon – Trump should stop comparing his press coverage to Lincoln’s, and instead start modeling Lincoln’s leadership.