In addition to “providing a rich and thorough history of Lincoln’s life,” Phillips engages in "a Star-Trek-like mind meld with our 16th President."

-Judge Stuart Shiffman, Illinois Times

Lincoln on Leadership

Guessing what a 19th-century president would do today

By Stuart Shiffman

In his first nationally televised one-on-one interview, Donald Trump invoked the name of the president often quoted by Republican occupants of the White House. “I can be the most presidential person ever, other than possibly the great Abe Lincoln, all right? But I can be the most presidential person. But I may not be able to do the job nearly as well if I do that.” This tweet-like observation does not bring to mind the eloquence of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address when he addressed a divided nation with the words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” But these are different times.

Lincoln on Leadership for Today: Abraham Lincoln’s Approach to 21st Century Issues by Donald T. Phillips is the author’s attempt to make 19th-century history relevant in contemporary times. The task is a difficult one. The effort is worthy but on many occasions the author seems compelled to engage in a Star-Trek-like mind meld with our 16th president, analyzing complex issues that Lincoln could never have contemplated facing during his life. America was an inward-facing country in the first two-thirds of the 19th century. We were fighting the second American revolution. Yes, we had border quarrels with Mexico and Canada, but seeking answers to how Lincoln might handle many of the complex international issues that current presidents face is somewhat of a stretch. If Abraham Lincoln came back to earth today, he would have a lot of reading and history to cover before he could intellectually handle the fact that the United States has become the dominant military and industrial power of the world.

Phillips covers a vast range of issues in the 17 chapters of Lincoln on Leadership. Each one begins with a discussion of Lincoln’s life and the events that shaped his political views. Using as examples the Mexican War that Lincoln opposed, the Civil War that he vigorously prosecuted, his single term in Congress and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Phillips provides a rich and thorough history of Lincoln’s life. Phillips then segues in each chapter to use Lincoln’s life experience as a basis for answering how Lincoln might confront modern issues such as the death penalty, a balanced budget, term limits and the influence of the press. In each instance, Phillips comes to conclusions, but it is often difficult for the reader to determine if they are truly those of Abraham Lincoln or instead the author projecting his views upon the former president. 

The basic problem with bringing Lincoln to the 21st century and suggesting that today he would be a Democrat, supporting universal health care while opposing the abolition of the death penalty, is that Phillips seems to forget how much the times in which historical figures live impact the challenges and decisions they must make. Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill all evolved and changed during their political lives. Had Lincoln lived, and indeed were he alive today, his life experience would certainly impact his view of contemporary political issues.

Historical conjecture and speculation always make for interesting discussion. People argue today about how many great historical figures would act were they alive in our turbulent times. It is a fun topic for discussion, but in the end, the answer remains a subject for substantial debate. 

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“Donald T. Phillips has a gift for making 19th-century history relevant for the 21st century. Lincoln on Leadership for Today is a marvelous way to think about our current policy woes. Highly recommended!” 

—Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University, CNN Presidential Historian, and author of the book Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.

“Phillips’s topical follow-up to his earlier Lincoln on Leadership begins by describing the nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln at his mother’s deathbed, listening to her last words: “Be good to one another.” That sets the tone for this intelligent and often moving look at one of the nation’s greatest presidents. Phillips portrays Lincoln as a gentle and sensitive boy who became the same type of leader, trying to maintain the Union in his early presidency while dealing with high casualty rates and soldiers gone AWOL. While Lincoln was a conscientious congressman who often made bipartisan overtures, he also took care to denounce the “evil spirit” of corruption he saw in Washington, D.C. Elsewhere, Phillips recalls a momentous biblical quotation from one of Lincoln’s early senate campaigns, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Using his extensive knowledge of Lincoln, Phillips makes convincing cases throughout for what the 19th-century statesman’s opinion would be on a wide array of issues faced by the 21st-century U.S., including climate change, torture, immigration, and equal pay for women. For readers who find present-day politics almost too much to contemplate, Phillips’s closing vision of Lincoln witnessing the “current state of affairs” will be especially poignant and bittersweet. Agent: Bob Barnett, Williams & Connolly. (Feb.)” 

—Publishers Weekly

“Don Phillips has done it again…bringing Lincoln’s brilliant leadership to life. Lincoln’s brilliance is as relevant today as it was a century and half ago.” 

—George Bodenheimer, Former President, ESPN, and author of Every Town is a Sports Town