Lessons from Lincoln on persuading fellow Americans

In Doris Kerns Goodwin’s masterful book about Abraham Lincoln, entitled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,  she describe’s President Lincoln’s approach to persuading his fellow countryman.  The following is a short excerpt where Mrs. Goodwin discusses how President Lincoln approached the most sensitive issue of that age: Slavery.

Unlike the majority of antislavery orators, who denounced the South and castigated slaveowners as corrupt and un-Christian, Lincoln pointedly denied fundamental differences between Northerners and Southerners. He argued that “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… . 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.” And, finally, “when they remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them … and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives.”

Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy. More than a decade earlier, he had employed a similar approach when he advised temperance advocates to refrain from denouncing drinkers in “thundering tones of anathema and denunciation,” for denunciation would inevitably be met with denunciation, “crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema.” In a passage directed at abolitionists as well as temperance reformers, he had observed that it was the nature of man, when told that he should be “shunned and despised,” and condemned as the author “of all the vice and misery and crime in the land,” to “retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.”

In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.” This, he concluded, was the only road to victory—to that glorious day “when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.”
Building on his rhetorical advice, Lincoln tried to place himself in the shoes of the slaveowner to reason his way through the sectional impasse, by asking Southerners to let their own hearts and history reveal that they, too, recognized the basic humanity of the black man. Never appealing like Seward to a “higher law,” or resorting to Chase’s “natural right” derived from “the code of heaven,” Lincoln staked his argument in reality.  Goodwin, Doris Kerns (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster (pages 166-67).
Effective politicians do more than bombard their opponents with accusations, constantly characterizing their views as evil or their motivations unjust.  Successful leaders attempt to connect with others on a human level through empathy.  This is true regardless of how repugnant their policy positions may be–if Lincoln could do this with slavery, an argument regarding taxes or spending should be perfectly manageable.  Conservatives must do more than be right all the time, they must connect to those whom they wish to lead. In light of President Lincoln’s example, perhaps that is why Cal Thomas’s description of Marco Rubio is so appealing:
Rubio was not judgmental, but merely appealed to a higher standard. He is not the angry moralist putting others down. He is a political evangelist showing there is a better way.

(November 16, 2012 – Source: Steve Pope/Getty Images North America)