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. 

The Presidency & the Power of Nature

When considering the power of the presidency in the conservation of nature, Theodore Roosevelt is often the first name that comes to mind. Rightly so. After touring the Grand Canyon in 1903, during a national debate over preserving the land or using it to mine precious medals, he insisted:

“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it…Keep it for your children, your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”

He said it would be a tragedy to cut down the great redwoods of California to make decks or porches. To those who advocated progress over preservation, he stated that:

“There is nothing more practical, in the end, than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions in mankind.”

TR GC
Roosevelt at the Grand Canyon

Yet we would be remiss to forget Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy of conservation. Although it’s largely a given today that first spouses will work on projects of their own, Lady Bird was the first person to put this into practice. She decided to pursue something that made her “heart sing.” As a little girl, Lady Bird had grown to deeply love the outdoors, and especially the flowers from her native Texas.

Although she’d never particularly liked the term, thinking it too indicative of cosmetics, the project became known as beautification. Writing in her journal in 1965, Lady Bird explained why she thought the project so important: “All the threads are interwoven– recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”

Lady Bird believed, simply, that people would be happiest surrounded by trees and flowers and greenery (she was right). Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson took the project national with the Highway Beautification Act–an attempt to clean up the nation’s highways, and take down the billboards. Although watered down, the bill did pass. Lady Bird also focused much of her efforts on cleaning up Washington D.C.

Lady Bird
Lady Bird at the Wildflower Center

After LBJ’s presidency had ended, and after he had died, Lady Bird continued to work on the project. In 1982, Lady Bird started the National Wildflower Researcher Center in Austin, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on her eighty-fifth birthday. Although it started with Lady Bird’s donation of sixty acres, the Center now stretches across 284 acres and contains more than 800 kinds of native Texas plants.

Preserving nature and protecting federal lands wasn’t always a partisan issue. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican. Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson were Democrats. Richard Nixon, whose administration created the EPA, was a Republican. Given that Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave the executive the power to protect federal land as a monument, and Lady Bird believed so strongly in the importance of beauty and nature, one has to wonder what they would think about the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the Bear’s Ear Monument by eighty-five percent. Trump, no stranger to unprecedented moments, is the first president to seek to modify a natural monument since the signing of the Antiquities Act in 1906.

Special thanks to Betty Boyd Caroli’s “Lady Bird & Lyndon” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpt: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism” for providing the background for this post.

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.