Image Credits: Edward Kinsella III.
I have little negative to say about David Von Drehle’s brief opinion piece in Friday’s Washington Post. His point isn’t overly ambitious but it’s solid. When it comes to the art of persuasion, we would do well to follow the advice of Abraham Lincoln.
He was of the people; he knew what it was to be looked down upon, underestimated, deplorable…Righteous lecturing is no way to win people to a cause. “To be hectored and condemned; to be told that they were wholly wrong” was for Lincoln “a path not to reform but to intransigence,” [biographer Jon] Meacham writes. “If you would win a man to your cause,” he quotes Lincoln, “first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”
“On the contrary,” the young frontier politician continued, “assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself.” The “head and heart” of the person one wishes to change become as impenetrable as “the hard shell of a tortoise.”
More to the point, we should not prejudicially assume everyone with a contrary opinion is completely intransigent and unmovable. That way lies self-defeat and hopelessness.
But I do have one problem with Von Drehle’s argument, and it comes in his conclusion.
To the last sentence of his last monumental speech, Lincoln acted with malice toward none, with charity for all. If this made him less than a perfect scourge of human prejudice and cowardice, it made him a more effective politician. Lincoln got results.
Let’s stipulate that the purpose of this piece is to use the past as a guide for how we should proceed in the present. In this example, we are to look at the example of Lincoln who “wanted to be an effective force” for ending slavery which “was evil and made a mockery of America’s founding rhetoric.” But he knew it was not enough “to be morally correct.” It would require a monumental political and persuasive effort, “pursued deliberately, cunningly and tirelessly.”
In fact, however, it required winning a Civil War that resulted in over 1.2 million casualties and 600,000 dead. There is plenty of deliberate and tireless action in war, and hopefully some cunning as well, but this is clearly not what Von Drehle is referring to in his piece.
All of Lincoln’s soothing and strategic words did not prevent the South from rebelling before he could even take the oath of office. In this respect, Joe Biden can relate, as he watched his political opponents storm the Capitol in a desperate effort to keep him from being formally declared the winner of his own election.
When we ask how to proceed in the present, we need to understand its true to parallels to the past, and Von Drehle seems far too sanguine about the power of mere persuasion to win the day.