Lincoln was a master persuader. In our Bicentennial Year, it is
instructive to examine his views on the subject of public opinion,
and to study the techniques he used to influence it.
16th President gave much thought and effort to persuading his fellow
Americans to support the Union. He recognized the overwhelming importance
of public opinion, and he sought to win public support not by manipulation
and untruths, but by a forthright, thoughtful, and persuasive approach.
several times spoke about the techniques of persuasion, and he practiced
what he preached. He understood the influence of opinion leaders,
the necessity for time to elapse to bring about acceptance of new
ideas, the need to speak to his opponents, even more than to his
supporters, and the value of authentic testimonials.
in presenting his case to the public, Abraham Lincoln knew how to
use humor but never ridicule; analogy but never misrepresentation
to make his points effectively.
were no mass media a century ago, of course, and there was no communications
technology worth speaking of. When Lincoln debated Stephen A. Douglas
on the slavery issue, none but those present heard him; there were
no tape recordings to capture the sound of his voice. There were
no mass-circulation national magazines, and local newspapers were
small in circulation. Photography had only begun; photos could not
be reproduced except one at a time. So Lincoln paid attention only
to his original speeches and writings, not to their reproduction.
Lincoln understood the importance of public opinion. In one debate
with Douglas, Lincoln demonstrated an understanding of how people
form their opinions, and the importance of what we would today call
his very first debate with Douglas, the opposition (Democratic)
political leader, at Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, Lincoln
accused Douglas of trying to arouse national sentiment in favor
of slavery. "Let us consider," he said, "what Judge
Douglas is doing every day to that end.
the first place, let us see what influence he is exerting on public
sentiment. In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything.
With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can
succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper
than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes
and decisions possible or impossible to be executed. This must be
borne in mind, as also the additional fact that Judge Douglas is
a man of vast influence, so great that it is enough for many men
to profess to believe anything, when they once find out that Judge
Douglas professes to believe it."
recognized that bold new ideas are not accepted immediately; time
is required for them to "sink in" and become accepted
as "inevitable." When the desperate struggle of the Union
armies finally drove President Lincoln to decide to emancipate the
slaves in the rebel states, even then he did not act immediately.
Rather, on September 22, 1862, he officially announced his intention
to issue the Emancipation Proclamation one hundred days later. He
declared he would officially release the proclamation, with the
force of law, on January 1st, 1863. Lincoln also hoped that in the
interim, some or all of the rebellious states would return to the
Union rather than lose their slaves. "They chose to disregard
it," he later wrote. So he acted, but 100 days later, public
opinion had been given ample time to accept the inevitability of
the dramatic act.
the persuader never attacked his opponents personally. He did not
indulge in name-calling or recrimination. Instead, he appealed to
his opponents by expressing a sympathetic understanding of their
position, without, at the same time, accepting or agreeing to it.
Lincoln wanted his opponents' support, and he recognized he would
not get it if he attacked them or misrepresented their position.
used this technique in 1854, in a speech at Peoria, Illinois, when
he attacked the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which opened
the newly admitted states to slavery. In his remarks to a Peoria
audience, Lincoln began by commenting on his opponents' viewpoint:
"Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice
against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their
situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would
not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not
instantly give it up.
I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless, there are individuals,
on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances;
and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out
of existence. We know that some Southern men do free their slaves,
go north, and become tiptop abolitionists; while some Northern ones
go south, and become most cruel slavemasters.
Southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin
of slavery then we, I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that
the institution exists, and that it is very difficult to get rid
of it in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the
saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should
not know how to do myself.''
know from some of his other writings and speeches that Lincoln had
given considerable thought to the problems of persuasion. So it
is entirely possible that the opening of his Peoria speech had been
carefully thought out to maximize its persuasiveness.
earlier, in his 33rd year, while a young lawyer, Lincoln verbalized
his insight into the nature of the process of persuasion.
audience was an organization of reformed drunkards whose goal, predictably,
was to preach temperance. Lincoln noted that after 20 years of propaganda
against alcohol, the temperance movement was only then beginning
to encounter success. Why had earlier efforts failed? In Abraham
Lincoln's view, the previous failures had been caused by criticizing
the victims of drink, instead of giving them sympathy and help.
He pointed out that earlier temperance advocates had been professional
propagandists who were unable to identity with those they sought
to persuade. Here are his words:
warfare heretofore engaged against the demon of intemperance has,
somehow or other, been erroneous. Either the champions engaged,
or the tactics they adopted, have not been the most proper. These
champions, for the most part, have been preachers, lawyers and hired
agents. Between these and the mass of mankind, there is a want of
approachability, if the term be admissable; partially at least,
fatal to their success. They are supposed to have no sympathy of
feeling or interest with those very persons whom it is their object
to convince and persuade."
Lincoln explained why he felt such spokesmen were unacceptable,
referring to the prevailing attitudes of the day (1842):
is so easy and so common to ascribe motives to men of these classes,
other than those they profess to act upon. The preacher, it is said,
advocates temperance because he is a fanatic, and desires a union
of church and state; the lawyer, from his pride and vanity of hearing
himself speak; and the hired agent, for his salary."
opted for the authentic first-person testimonial, rather than argument
by "third-person endorsement." He felt that an effective
personal testimonial was compellingly persuasive. "When one,
who has long been known as a victim of intemperance, bursts the
fetters that have bound him, and appears before his neighbors clothed
and in his right mind, a redeemed specimen of long-lost humanity,
and stands up with tears of joy trembling in eyes to tel1 of the
miseries once endured, now to be endured no more...however simple
his language, there is a logic and an eloquence in it that few with
human feelings can resist.
cannot say that he desires a union of church and state, for he is
not a church member; they cannot say he is vain of hearing himself
speak, for his whole demeanor shows, he would gladly avoid speaking
at all; they cannot say he speaks tor pay. tor he receives none,
and asks none. Nor can his sincerity in any way be doubted; or his
sympathy for those he would persuade to imitate his example, be
contrast, said Lincoln, when drinkers were attacked "not in
the accents of entreaty and persuasion. diffidently addressed by
erring man to an erring brother; but in the thundering tones of
anathema and denunciation... "it was no wonder "that they
were slow, very slow, to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations,
and to join the ranks of their denouncers, in a hue and cry against
themselves. To have expected them to do otherwise than as they didto
have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination
with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal
of human nature, which is God's decree and never can be reversed.
When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasionkind,
unassuming persuasionshould ever be adopted. It is an old
and a true maxim that a 'drop of honey catches more flies than a
gallon of gall.' So with men.
you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are
his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his
heart which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason,
and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in
convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed
that cause really be a just one.
the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgement, or to command
his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and
he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head
and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed
to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel
can be made; and though you throw it with more than Herculean force
and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him than to penetrate
the shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him,
even to his best interest."
techniques of persuasion, in Lincoln's eyes, did not include concealment
of areas of disagreement. It was consonant with his character that
he believed that his hearers were entitled to know exactly where
he stood, even if they might disagree with him. In 1846, when he
was running for a seat in the House of Representatives, from the
7th District of Illinois, he was attacked as a non-believer by his
opponent, a Methodist minister.
he decided to tell voters his viewpoint forthrightly, so that they
could judge for themselves. In a handbill dated July 31, 1846, he
charge having got into circulation...that I am an open scoffer at
Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to
notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian
church is true, but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures;
and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion
in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular
still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings
and injure the morals of the community in which he may live."
the persuader knew the value of humor as a technique to win friends,
as for example when he responded to Stephen Douglas' disparagement
of his humble origins. In his speech at Ottawa, Illinois, already
mentioned, Lincoln commented, "The Judge is woefully at fault
about his early friend Lincoln being a 'grocery keeper.' I don't
know as it would be a great sin if I had been, but he is mistaken.
Lincoln never kept a grocery anywhere in the world. It is true Lincoln
did work the latter part of one winter in a small still house, up
at the head of a hollow. " After which, the reporter who transcribed
the speech inserted "(Roars of Laughter)." Apparently,
Lincoln didn't mind suggesting his involvement with "Kentucky
moonshine," and his audience didn't either.
loved to simplify complex points with analogies and illustrations.
Once he was challenged because he had approved the arrest of an
Ohio congressman and his expulsion into Confederate territory for
expressing sympathy with the rebel cause. Lincoln wrote a letter
to a Democratic leader to explain why he supported the action. He
used a simple analogy to make his point: "Long experience has
shown that armies cannot be maintained unless desertion shall be
punished by the severe penalty of death
Must I shoot a simple-minded
soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily
agitator who induces him to desert? This is none the less injurious
when effected by getting a father or brother or friend into a public
meeting and there working on his feelings, till he is persuaded
to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for
a wicked administration of a contemptible government, too weak to
arrest and punish him if he shall desert. I think that in such a
case, to silence the agitator and save the boy, is not only constitutional,
but withal a great mercy."
in the common man
the core of Lincoln's beliefs was a fundamental faith and trust
in the judgment of the common man. He himself had practically no
formal education; he once described how he had gone to school "by
littles"a little now and then. "When I came of age,
" he said, "I did not know much. Still somehow, I could
read, write and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all."
If Lincoln was not formally educated, neither did he believe that
lack of formal schooling would bar intelligent judgments by his
should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice
of the people?" he asked in his First Inaugural Address. ';Is
there any better or equal hope in the world ?" Already by the
day of his inauguration, seven states had seceded from the United
States of America and formed a rebel government under the name of
the Confederate States. Yet, Lincoln did not lose faith.
our present differences, is either party without faith of being
in the right?" he asked, "If the Almighty Ruler of nations,
with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North,
or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely
prevail, by the judgment of this great tribunal, the American people."
is how our first martyred President saw the task of persuasion.
It was not demagoguery, not gimmicks, not lying, but rather an honest
expression of views, presented with sensitivity to his audience
and based on his profound respect for its intelligence. This is
persuasion as all of us ought to practice it.