Master Persuader
“He Was a Genius at Influencing Public Opinion.”

Public Relations Journal, February 1976

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Abraham 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.

Our 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.

Lincoln 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.

And 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.

There 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.

Certainly, 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 opinion leaders.

In 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.

"In 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."

Time is required

Lincoln 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.

Lincoln 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.

He 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.

This 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.

"When 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.''

Maximizing persuasiveness

We 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.

Much earlier, in his 33rd year, while a young lawyer, Lincoln verbalized his insight into the nature of the process of persuasion.

His 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:

"The 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."

Then Lincoln explained why he felt such spokesmen were unacceptable, referring to the prevailing attitudes of the day (1842):

''It 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."

First-person testimonials

Lincoln 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.

They 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 denied."

By 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 did—to 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, persuasion—kind, unassuming persuasion—should 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.

"If 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.

"On 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.

"Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his best interest."

A forthright approach

The 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.

Immediately, he decided to tell voters his viewpoint forthrightly, so that they could judge for themselves. In a handbill dated July 31, 1846, he wrote:

"A 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….I 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."

Lincoln 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.

Lincoln 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."

Faith in the common man

At 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 countrymen.

"Why 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.

"In 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."

This 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.