Doris Kearns Goodwin provided all Civil War lovers with a wonderful book entitled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As the title implies, Lincoln’s cabinet consisted of men who were running for president or were political rivals to Lincoln leading up to the 1860 presidential election. This book was the book that was the basis for the movie Lincoln (directed by Spielberg himself!).
As a pastor and preacher, I am always interested in how leaders communicate. For us, it’s always a work in progress. In reading this work, Goodwin relays the account of the beginnings of Lincoln’s rivalry with Stephen Douglas. At the time, the issue of slavery was bringing the Union to a tipping point. Western expansion of the United States brought the issue of whether to allow slavery into these new areas. The newly passed Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed those new territories to decide for themselves if they would be slave or free—a doctrine known as popular sovereignty. Stephen Douglas was the main proponent of this doctrine. At the time, Lincoln was merely against westward expansion of slavery—a view that would increasing evolve into one who believed in emancipation. Nevertheless, Lincoln, a young newcomer to Illinois political scene stood toe-to-toe with the veteran Douglas at the Illinois State Fair in 1854, soon after the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
In just a few short pages, Goodwin paints the picture of Lincoln’s communication skills, giving lessons to all of us who communicate.
- Preparation: “Before speaking out against the Nebraska Act, Lincoln spent many hours in the State Library, studying present and past congressional debates so that he could reach back into the stream of American history and tell a clear, reasoned, and compelling tale. He would express no opinion on anything, Herndon observed, until he knew his subject ‘inside and outside, upside and downside.’ Lincoln told Joshua Seed, ‘I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out” (164).
- Conviction: “’He began in a slow and hesitating manner,’ Horace White noted. Yet minutes into his speech, ‘it was evident that he had mastered his subject, that he knew what he was going to say, and that he knew he was right’” (165).
- Connection to their history. “While Douglas simply asserted his points as self-evident, Lincoln embedded his argument in a narrative history, transporting his listeners back to their roots as a people, to the founding of the nation—a story that still retained its power to arouse strong emotion and thoughtful attention” (165). “In order to make his argument, Lincoln decided to begin with nothing less that an account of our common history, the powerful narrative of how slavery grew with our country, how its growth and expansion had been carefully contained by the founding fathers, and how on this fall night in 1854 the great story they were being told—the story of the Union—had come to such an impasse that the exemplary meaning, indeed, the continued existence of the story hung in the balance” (166).
- Clarity. “Many of his arguments were familiar to those who had followed the Senate debate and had read Chase’s ‘Appeal’; but the structure of the speech was so ‘clear and logical,’ the Illinois Daily Journal observed, the arrangement of the facts so ‘methodical,’ that the overall effect was strikingly original and ‘most effective’ (165).
- Ordinary language. “Instead of the ornate language so familiar to men like Webster, Lincoln used irony and humor, laced with workaday, homespun images to build an eloquent tower of logic. The proslavery argument that a vote for the Wilmot Proviso threatened the stability of the entire Union was reduced to absurdity by analogy—’because I may have refused to build an addition to my house, I thereby have decided to destroy the existing house!’ Such flashes of figurative language were always available to Lincoln to drive home a point, gracefully educating while entertaining—in a word, communicating an enormously complicated issue with wit, simplicity, and a massive power of moral persuasion” (166).