Carving out the Middle Ground

President Abraham Lincoln did a masterful job of defining an ambiguous situation. By the time he took office, seven southern states had passed resolutions of secession. The outgoing President Buchanan famously noted that under the constitution, the states had no right to secede, but he had no power to force them to stay. Lincoln never called them secessionist states, just my unhappy fellow countrymen. He never threatened aggression, just use of force in self-defence. He eventually won the Civil War!

I completed listening to a delightful 24-lecture course on Lincoln’s speeches. Here are some highlights on how he won and led.

Gain attention: Lincoln followed Douglas around the state of Illinois to rebut him till Douglas, the incumbent senator, would agree to formally debate him during the 1858 senate election. They agreed on seven 3-hour debates around the state, with each one opening the debate in an alternate manner.

Define the opportunity: Lincoln started on the defensive but at the end of the debates came out ahead. Lincoln actively answered Douglas’ questions while Douglas focused on Lincoln’s House Divided speech and kept mostly repeating the same tried and tested stuff. Douglas tried to paint Lincoln as a dangerous radical who would abolish slavery. Lincoln meanwhile began to own the middle ground. He plucked out from Douglas’ speech a ‘I don’t care whether slavery lives or dies’ statement and skewered him mercilessly. Using the Dred Scott decision, he now identified a clear logical slippery slope and said that it is only a matter of time that a second Dred Scott decision will make slavery permanent, and unoverturnable by Congress. Lincoln lost the Senate race because of vote distributions, even though in the aggregate Lincoln’s side won more adherents and votes.

Do the hard work: Lincoln went on to give a speech at Cooper Union in New York City in January 1860. He later said that that speech made him President. He had to do a masterful twin task of skewering the pro-slavery Douglas (the leading presidential hopeful for the opposite side) and differentiating himself from William Seward, the leading candidate from Lincoln’s own party, when his party itself had almost taken the strong position of abolition of slavery. Lincoln took the middle ground by saying that let’s listen to what the founding fathers wanted about slavery. In an astoundingly well-researched speech for the era, Lincoln spelled out that 24 of the 39 founders of the country had left written records on the issue and 21 of them said or implied that slavery was only to be tolerated while it lasted. That speech made him look reasonable and electable. He was nominated and won the election.

Anyways… the war had to come. And so on. Just thought I would share how Lincoln carved out the middle ground and won public support which too was critical for a military victory.