Moderation in a Splintering Society: Lincoln on the Power of Listening

By Duane Soubirous

1840s Abe
Abraham Lincoln circa 1840, pre-beard

This post is the first of many dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes come from Michael Burlingame’s two-volume biography titled Abraham Lincoln: A Life. In the Author’s Note, Burlingame wrote that Lincoln’s character “can be profitably emulated by all.” To spare History First visitors from reading the entire biography (but if you have the time, I can’t recommend the books highly enough!), I have picked quotes and added commentary that will illustrate Lincoln’s political views and personal advice.

Here’s a quote from the 1840s, before he was elected to his sole term in the House of Representatives.

“It is an old and true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

While abolitionists employed fiery rhetoric against slaveowners and called for the immediate emancipation of all slaves, Lincoln spoke with moderation. He said that Northerners and Southerners were different only in the circumstances of their upbringing: had Northerners been born into slaveholding families, they too would fiercely defend slavery.

Lincoln ran for president on an antislavery, not abolitionist, platform. He denounced the institution of slavery without demonizing slaveholders. He advocated for a gradual extinction of slavery and supported a plan where the government would compensate slaveholders for emancipation, angering abolitionists who believed the government shouldn’t fund the evil institution of slavery. Lincoln told crowds that he was committed only to executing the first step: stopping slavery from expanding, containing it to states where it was already legal.

William Lloyd Garrison's
William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator”

Given that states began seceding before Lincoln was even inaugurated, it would seem that Lincoln might as well have echoed abolitionist newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, who wrote, “NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS.” Lincoln’s strategy may have worked today, where voters can pull out smartphones and watch candidates’ speeches anywhere. Presidential candidates in Lincoln’s time relied on newspapers to spread their message, and the Southern press heavily distorted Lincoln’s message. They sounded the alarm that a President Lincoln would call on slaves to kill their masters, impregnate white women, and turn America into nation of mulattos.

Lincoln held firm to his belief that slavery was morally wrong, but he also recognized the importance of discussing its eradication with abolitionists and slaveowners, neither of which he aligned with. In the midst of the secession crisis he even signaled that he was open to compromise in his stance against the expansion of slavery. That wasn’t enough for slaveowners, and by refusing to concede a little, they ended up losing a lot.

 

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