The Great Debate Was a Success

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

December 9, 2021



Phew! It worked. The Great Debate was a success.


The Lincoln Group did something a little different on December 7, 2021. Instead of our normal invited speaker to talk about their most recent book, we decided to try debating a topic related to Abraham Lincoln's character. The Great Debate was on!


Was Lincoln an audacious leader, as suggested in Richard Stiner's most recent book, Summoned to Glory: The Audacious Life of Abraham Lincoln? Or was Lincoln more cautious in his approach, as highlighted in the classical David Herbert Donald book, Lincoln?


Journalist and Lincoln Group Board member Ed Epstein got us started on Lincoln as a man of caution. Ed highlighted how Lincoln relied on Congress to pass such laws as the Conscription, Homestead, Morrill Land-Grant, and Pacific Railroad Acts. How Lincoln held off calls by his first Secretary of War Cameron for arming African American troops. And how he was slow in many people's minds to issue an emancipation order.


Then psychologist and Board member Richard Margolies presented the "Lincoln as audacious" view. He pointed out that Lincoln was a visionary who cleverly managed his cabinet, the Congress, and public sentiment to achieve bold actions without creating the backlash that abolitionist policies had stimulated. When looking at what he accomplished, Lincoln was radical in effect. Following his presentation, the discussion was opened up to the attendees.


Our apprehension about whether this new format would stimulate an active discussion was put to rest quickly. For the next hour there was substantial back-and-forth from the members present. A variety of viewpoints arose among the over 50 attendees: some backing the idea of a cautious Lincoln; others an audacious president. A poll taken before the discussion had weighted more toward the audacious, but a poll taken at the end was essentially tied. But that doesn't tell the whole story - the definitions of audacious and cautious evolved during the discussion, such that the vote at the end reflected a different understanding of the two terms. More importantly, the active discussion helped all of us gain a better understanding of the complexity of Abraham Lincoln, a man who can't be defined by simple arbitrary terms.


We recorded the Zoom session for those who want to watch the replay and for those who missed it. You can watch it here. [Be sure to enter the passcode exactly: ZyW3xDY@]


Given the positive feedback, we will plan on doing more of these open discussion events. So what topics should we tackle? Send us feedback here on the website comments or via email.