My history hero: Abraham Lincoln (1809–65)

Chosen by journalist and author Alastair Campbell

Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The 16th president of the United States "understood the value of hard work, had deep beliefs and pursued them," says Alastair Campbell. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)  

This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. He spent most of his childhood in the frontier lands of Indiana. After training as a lawyer, he went into politics, entering the US House of Representatives and becoming a leading Republican. He opposed slavery and his election as president in 1860 triggered the secession of the southern states and civil war (1861–65). His leadership helped preserve the Union, defeat the Confederacy and end slavery in the USA. He was assassinated five days after the civil war ended.

When did you first hear about Lincoln?

I first became aware of him when I learnt at school about the slavery debate in 19th‑century America and the civil war. I studied history until O-level, and he’s just one of the small number of political figures that I think everyone should know about by the time they leave school. Interestingly, he was born on the same day as Charles Darwin.

What kind of person was Lincoln?

My sense is of somebody who understood the value of hard work, had  deep beliefs and pursued them. He also realised that anything meaningful can only be achieved through a team effort, so you need to build a team of the best talents, even if they’re your rivals – I think that’s quite a profound lesson for politicians everywhere.
However, he was also somebody who understood that you have to be pragmatic in politics to get results, and that sometimes means getting your hands dirty. He wasn’t averse to getting his hands dirty.

What made Lincoln a hero?

First and foremost, the fact that he set himself big objectives in terms of abolishing slavery and winning the civil war, but went about achieving them in a pragmatic way.
I also admire his style of leadership: he was somebody who took people with him, but who wasn’t afraid of doing things that might be frowned upon if they helped achieve the bigger objective.
Lastly, he suffered from quite bad depression – something I only really understood when I began to campaign on mental health issues. The fact that he was doing a difficult job in extraordinary circumstances while suffering from ‘the black dog’ makes him all the more remarkable in my eyes.

What was his finest hour?

Preserving the Union while abolishing slavery. If it hadn’t been for Lincoln, the USA might well have split. He held it together by winning the civil war.
His great gamble was that he could keep the South in the Union even though he was doing something – opposing slavery – that most people in the South fundamentally disagreed with. His skills as a leader have to be admired – and, of course, the reason why Barack Obama invoked Lincoln when he first became president is that without Lincoln, Obama couldn’t have been president.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Given that the Democrats and the Labour party are tantamount to sister parties, I kind of wish he’d been a Democrat! But otherwise my view of Lincoln is overwhelmingly positive – and it’s very difficult to view him as anything other than a force of nature.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own? 

I can see some parallels with regard to us both doing difficult, high-pressured jobs while at times battling with depression. But the fact is there is no one in political life who can’t learn a thing or two from Lincoln.

If you could meet Lincoln, what would you ask him?

The thing I’d be really interested in finding out is did he think he would be revered in the future? And did he really care? I’d hope he would say that he didn’t really care.
Alastair Campbell was talking to York Membery. 
Alastair Campbell was Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s director of communications from 1997–2003. He is a journalist, broadcaster and author