Compromise & Harmony: Lincoln on Peacekeeping

By Duane Soubirous

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser–in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.”

Today’s quote comes from a lecture Abraham Lincoln delivered to lawyers, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to heed Lincoln’s advice.

In today’s political climate, it’s easy to get trapped in a bubble, whether that is on social media or in real life. People tend to consume news that reinforces their already held beliefs. With a screen as a shield, they will defend these beliefs tooth and nail. Lincoln, albeit long before the Twitter era, warned that self-righteousness and stubbornness can bring about costly litigation or resentment. Is it not better to concede how the other person might be misunderstood and offer a compromise, than to declare your righteousness and demand the other party concede everything?

In between Lincoln’s election and inauguration, many states in the Deep South seceded and seized control of federal property, with no objections whatsoever from President Buchanan. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had to choose between stating that he would reclaim property already lost, or that he would only defend property still controlled by the government.

Lincoln would have been constitutionally correct if he affirmed his right to reclaim stolen assets, but his advisors worried that taking an offensive stance would immediately unite the Upper South with the Deep South against the Union. In the end, he proclaimed during his inaugural that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” federal property, not reclaim it.

Lincoln took a conciliatory tone again when he addressed the president’s unilateral authority to appoint federal officers. If locals objected to Lincoln’s appointees, he said he would not force those “obnoxious strangers” upon the locals.

Stephen A. Douglas

The inaugural address worked, if only temporarily. Stephen A. Douglas, a candidate in the 1860 presidential election whose platform called for national unity over slavery restrictions, thought the speech “would do much to restore harmony to the country.”

To criticism from abolitionist hard-liners that Lincoln was conceding too much to secessionists, Lincoln wrote that it “was sometimes better for a man to pay a debt he did not owe, or to lose a demand which was a just one, than to go to law about it.” Even in deeply divided times, Lincoln sought the middle road. He wanted to unite the country, and aimed to ease, not exacerbate, the growing tensions. 

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