Six feet, four inches tall, gangly, but hunched now over his desk as he pens eighty-six meticulously written pages in fulfillment of his duties spelled out in Article II, section 3, of the Constitution of the United States of America. Nine hundred twenty-seven days before, he wrested his own party’s nomination from three better-known and more privileged rivals—William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates—and began to change one of the great losing streaks in American politics. Depending on how you count, he had lost three or five or, some even argue, as many eight elections before rising to the highest office in the land.
One friend later observes the author’s “whole soul” seems consumed in the writing of the words contained in his eighty-six-page document. In this era, the author’s message will be hand-delivered and read aloud not by him but by the Secretary of the Senate. Only in the next century will the US president’s State of the Union Address become a spectacle in which the American world leader stands before his nation via radio and then television, hoping not merely to report but to inspire.
The message of December 1, 1862 follows a crushing defeat of the author’s own party in the mid-term elections, new and escalating cabinet power struggles, political unrest, and the horrors of Antietam, the bloodiest battle up to that point in the American Civil War.
Thirty days later, the author will sign one of the most famous edicts in the history of any nation: The Emancipation Proclamation. But the context for that signature to come must now be established with his own thinking, his own message, and with his own words, which include a long and fact-laden report on the progress of the war and the nation’s governance, words that contain some of history’s most famous statements and, in 1942, will inspire composer Aaron Copland to borrow excerpts in his evocative Lincoln Portrait. Here is a small part of what the author wrote: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
At America’s darkest of dark hours, no less a leadership authority than the sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, calls on his countrymen to “think anew and act anew.” And today, more than a century and a half later, in governance and business, so are we once more called.