Public Opinion & the Power of Persuasion

Abraham Lincoln and Public Opinion

“There is no doubt about it at all; people regard him, one and all, as their PM, and I don’t believe there will ever be anyone quite like him,” Elizabeth Layton, one of Winston Churchill’s secretary, wrote home in May 1942. “He appears to the masses as well as to the brains and ‘elite’.”1

That connection appeared conterminously with Churchill’s elevation to the prime ministership in early May 1940. General Hastings Ismay noted that Churchill was greeted warmly in early May 1940 as the new prime minister left Downing Street. As soon as the prime minister entered the Admiralty where he still had his main office, he teared up: “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can given them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.”2 Churchill was always realistic and optimistic. Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert noted: “In speech in the House of Commons on 21 November 1940, bluntly describing the difficulties that lay ahead – ‘the darker side of our dangers and burdens’ – Churchill commented: ‘I know that is in adversity that British qualities shine the brightest, and it is under these extraordinary tests that the character of our slowly wrought institutions reveals its latent, invisible strength.’”3

“Churchill’s leadership and his moods were closely interwoven,” wrote Gilbert. “He was not enamoured of harsh words and conflict On one occasion he told a visitor: ‘Anger is a waste of energy. Steam, which is used to blow off a safety valve, would be better used to drive an engine.’ But the strains of leadership were enormous, and he often turned to anger and petulance.”4 General Ismay wrote of visiting the London Docks area with Churchill in September 1940 after a particularly heavy German bombing: “Our first stop was at an air-raid shelter in which about forty persons had been killed and many more wounded by a direct hit, and we found a big crowd, male and female, young and old, but all very poor. One might have expected them to be resentful against the authorities responsible for their protection; but, as Churchill got out of his car, they literally mobbed him.”5 Often emotional, Churchill in turn found it hard to retain his composure.

Biographer William Manchester noted that Churchill “had come to power because he had seen through Hitler from the very beginning – but not, ironically, because his inner light, the source of that insight, was understood by Englishmen. Churchill’s star was invisible to the public and even to most of his peers. But a few saw it. One of them wrote afterward that although Winston knew the world was complex and in constant flux, to him ‘the great things, races, and peoples, and morality were eternal.’”6 In World War II, Churchill’s world view and that of the British people coincided. Early in his political career, Churchill had frequently failed to understand the views of British citizens. Manchester argued that Churchill “repeatedly misjudged” British public opinion. “Except in national emergencies, at the hour of fate or the crack of doom, he was largely ignored. People didn’t identify with him because he never reciprocated.”7 It seems fair to conclude that Churchill was more self-centered than Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln’s preoccupation with molding public opinion was not something he suddenly discovered in the Civil War. As Lincoln said in his Second Annual Message to Congress in December 1862, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail.” His respect for public opinion was tied to his respect for public language. Lincoln was a careful speaker who seldom made idle public comments for the sake of hearing himself talk or gratifying his listeners. Lincoln knew words were important. His penchant for stories both prevented him from miscommunication and forced his listeners to think about what he intended to say. He understood the nature of the relationship between speaker and audience. Historian Russell McClintock wrote: “Lincoln was supremely conscious of the importance of public opinion in a republic, and he knew that his ability to fight and win that battle or campaign would rest on two things: unified Northern support and the continued loyalty of the border slave states.”8
The mature Lincoln was very conscious not to move too far ahead of public opinion. One Lincoln biographer, Lord Charnwood, wrote of Lincoln’s evolving opposition to slavery as represented in his 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay that “we can be quite sure that the moderate and subtle but intensely firm opinion with which a little later Lincoln returned to political strife was the product of long and deep and anxious thought during the years from 1849 to 1854. On the surface it did not go far beyond the condemnation of slavery and acceptance of the Constitution which had guided him earlier, nor did it seem to differ from the wide-spread public opinion which in 1854 created a new party; but there was this difference that Lincoln had by then looked at the matter in all its bearings, and prepared his mind for all eventualities. We shall find, and need not be surprised to find, that he who now hung back a little, and who later moved when public opinion moved, later still continued to move when public opinion had receded.”9 Lincoln’s understanding of people did not dictate his principles but it did help determine the speed of his actions. Friend Joshua Speed recalled: “Mr. Lincoln was a man of great common sense. He was a common man expanded into giant proportions; well acquainted with the people, he placed his hand on the beating pulse of the Nation, judged of its disease, and was ever ready with a remedy. He had an abiding faith in the good sense and intuitions of the people. Wendell Phillips aptly described him as the Indian hunter, who lays his ear to the ground and listens for the tramp of the coming millions.”10

Analysis and conviction was inseparable from persuasion. “Mr. Lincoln’s whole life attests the strength and sincerity of his convictions,” recalled Judge David Davis, a longtime friend. “Although ambitious, yet office had no attractions for him, if attainable through a sacrifice of principle. He attached himself to a party, when satisfied that its views of public policy were correct, and the circumstance that the party was in the minority, and could with difficulty win its way to the confidence of the people, had no terrors for him. Had he loved principle less and place more, he would not have been without official station during the grater portion of his life. He had faith – without which true greatness does not exist. Believing in certain great principles of government, he did not complain because for a season, they were unacceptable to the people – having faith in their ultimate triumph.”11 Friend Robert L. Wilson recalled: “He did not follow a system of ratiocination deducing conclusions from premises, laid down, and eliminated; but his mode of reasoning was purely analytical; his reasons and conclusions were always draw from analogy; his memory was a great storehouse, in which was stored away all the facts, acquired by reading, but principally by observation, and intercourse with men, women and children, in their social, business relations; learning and weighing the motives that prompt each act in life, supplying him with an inexhaustable fund of facts, from which he would draw conclusions, and illustrating every subject however complicated with anecdotes draw from all classes of society.”12

Lincoln understood he could not get out too far ahead of public opinion on such a controversial subject as abolition. Diplomat-turned-General Carl Schurz recalled meeting with President Lincoln early in 1862 and arguing for emancipation. Lincoln responded positively: “I cannot imagine that any European power would dare to recognize and aid the Southern Confederacy if it becomes clear that the Confederacy stands for slavery and the Union for freedom.’ Then he explained to me that, while a distinct anti-slavery policy would remove the foreign danger, and would thus work for the preservation of the Union – while, indeed, it might, in this respect, be necessary for the preservation of the Union, and while he thought that it would soon appear and be recognized to be in every respect necessary, he was in doubt as to whether public opinion at home was yet sufficiently prepared for it. He was anxious to unite, and keep united, all the forces of Northern society and of the Union element in the South, especially the Border States, in the war for the Union.”13

“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,” declared Lincoln in a temperance address on Washington’s birthday, 1842.14 Two decades later, Lincoln told a British visitor: “It is very common in this country to find great facility of expression, and less common to find great lucidity of thought. The combination of the two in one person is very uncommon; but whenever you do find it, you have a great man.”15 Lincoln’s powers of persuasion could not be separated from his powers of analysis. Friend Henry C. Whitney on Illinois attorney recalled: “No figure of speech, however apt or startling, could conceal or obscure a fact, no prestige of authority could supply the truth; no sophistry, however cunning, could escape detection. Nothing was magnified or minified to him: no disguise could hide the true object from his penetrating gaze, and he saw objects much more completely and comprehensively than any one else: in point of fact, his mental vision was perfect: thus a practical man would see the utility alone, a poet would see none but the ideal qualities, and a clown would see the ludicrous elements, and none other: but Lincoln would see everything that all men combined could see, and perhaps something more.”16

Lincoln’s attitude toward and connection with public opinion was nearly mystical. Whitney wrote: “A much remarked and laudable peculiarity was his self-abnegation and his conception of himself as a mere instrument, as it were, of the Divine Purpose and of the people’s will: and, as a simple agent, to execute the will of God and of the loyal American people; and in order to ascertain what was the will of the people, he habitually consulted the speeches of public men who were inimical to him, and the editorials of journals which were averse to his policy; he read the querulous New York Tribune and the meddling Cincinnati Commercial and cut out and frequently consulted the articles which were most severely condemnatory of his administration, purposely ignoring journals and men who sustained his policy, either as lulling him into a false security or as being swerved by favoritism or partiality from candid views.”17 Whitney noted: “Lincoln was very sensitive to public opinion – and dreaded the censure of the newspapers and politicians for appointing his personal friends.”18 Many observers have noted that Lincoln had a close bond to ordinary people. Whitney wrote: “Mr Lincoln was obliged to consult, and be guided by, the popular opinion of his own constituency, and likewise the opinion of foreign nations. Even now, we can hardly appreciate the delicacy of his task. He must have the support of Charles Sumner and Frank Blair, of Owen Lovejoy and Edward Stanley, of the New England abolitionist – the Illinois Whig – the Missouri slaveholder. He must cajole, intimidate or court the ultra-Democrat of New York; the [Clement] Vallandigham man of Ohio, and the Son of Liberty of Indiana; and his success is one of the most wonderful of moral achievements.”19

Secretary of State William H. Seward and President Lincoln developed a special relationship. Whitney recalled: “As the Secretary came in the President hailed him in a somewhat peremptory but good-natured manner: ‘Well, Govern-nuer, what is it now?’ The Secretary seemed a mere trifle nettled, but still amused, at this abrupt greeting. His ostensible business related to some needed thing about New Mexico; the President interrupted him by remarking: ‘In other words, New Mexico has no govern-or nor govern-ment.’ He then gave the Secretary the instructions needed, when the latter immediately withdrew, fully impressed with the belief that the President had banished care and burdensome business, including consultations with his constitutional advisers, for the remainder of that day.”20

“Mr. Lincoln had to perform many unpleasant duties, and to placate every variety of unreasonable man – there was the imperious Stanton – the dictatorial Greeley – the sardonic Stevens – the sarcastic Conkling – the prejudiced Sumner – the facile Seward – the sleek Fernando Wood – and they were but types of thousands with whom he must deal, disarm and conquer,” wrote attorney Henry C. Whitney. “He must refuse many reasonable requests – must lay his hand heavily upon many worthy communities – must force unpalatable policies upon the country: good humor must be restored to irascible spirits who came to him ‘fighting mad: and many who came on ardent missions must be sent empty, but good-naturedly, away. Neither reason nor force were the needed weapons, but pleasantry was: and one stroke of the President’s ready and facile wit was often more utility than a whole day’s debate in Congress.”21

Union factions in the border states – especially Missouri – particularly bedeviled President Lincoln. When a Missouri “Committee of Seventy radicals showed up in Washington at the end of September 1863, they complained about his support of opposing factions. Radical Enos Clarke reported that President Lincoln responded: ‘Why you are a long way behind the times in complaining of what I said upon that point. Gov. [Hamilton] Gamble was ahead of you. There came to me some time ago a letter complaining because I had said that he was a party to a factional quarrel, and I answered that letter without reading it. Well, I’ll tell you. My private secretary told me such a letter had been received and I sat down and wrote to Gov. Gamble in about these words: ‘I understand that a letter has been received from you complaining that I said you were a party to a factional quarrel in Missouri. I have not read that letter, and, what is more, I never will.’ With that Mr. Lincoln dismissed our grievance about having been called parties to a factional quarrel.” Lincoln pushed Missourians to elect two new senators – one each from the conservative and the radical groups in the state. Always, Lincoln had an eye on how to maintain the fragile Union coalition.

Lincoln “knew better than anyone the exact will of the American people. Amid the noisy confusion of discordant voices which always arises in a free country at moments of crises, he would distinguish with marvellous acuteness the true voice of public opinion,” wrote French writer Adolph Pineton, who spent time with him in the month before the president’s assassination. “He had, however, nothing in common with these politicians, ever on the track of what seems to them to be popular caprice. His firm will, his exalted nature, above all, his inflexible honesty, always kept him aloof from those lamentable schemes; yet he well understood that he was the people’s agent, and that his duty obliged him to stand by his principal; for he was well aware of that close union which must exist in a free democracy between the authority representing the nation and the nation itself.”22

President Lincoln’s management of public opinion was done through many vehicles which resulted in his renomination for president in June 1864. Historian Ida M. Tarbell wrote that by late winter 1864, “it was already becoming evident to Lincoln’s most determined antagonists in the party that it would be useless for them to try to nominate anybody else. On all sides – in State legislatures, Union leagues, caucuses – the people were demanding that Lincoln be renominated. The case was a curious one. Four years before, Lincoln had been nominated for the Presidency of the United States because he was an available candidate, not from any general confidence that he was the best man in the Republican party for the place. Now, on the contrary, it was declared that he would have to be nominated because he had won the confidence of the people so completely that no candidate would have any chance against him. In four years he had risen from a position of comparative obscurity to be the most generally trusted man in the North. The great reason for this confidence was that the people understood exactly what he was trying to do and why he was trying to do it. From the beginning of his Administration, in fact, Lincoln had taken the people into his confidence. Whenever a strong opposition to his policy developed in any quarter, it was his habit to explain in a public letter exactly why he was doing what he was doing, and why he was not doing the thing he was urged to do.”23

Both Lincoln and Churchill had to massage egos. Both Lincoln and Churchill had to act as salesmen for their causes. Churchill was a cheerleader for the entire Allied coalition. In early October 1943, Churchill secretary Marian Holmes recorded in her diary that Churchill “had a bad day, a very bad day.” The prime minister told her: “The difficulty is not winning the war; it is in persuading people to let you win it – persuading fools.”24 Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert noted: “Again and again, in face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders, Churchill sought to use his powers of persuasion. Among those with whom he had substantial talks while on his travels were the Polish commander-in-chief General Wladyslaw Anders, the Chinese National leaders, General Chiang Kai-shek, and the two heads of the French national movement, General Charles de Gaulle and General Henri Giraud. Among other leaders to whom Churchill travelled – and it was almost always Churchill who had to make the journeys – was Ismet Inönü, the President of Turkey, whose neutrality Churchill strongly encouraged, to prevent a Turkish accommodation with Germany that would endanger Britain’s military position in the Middle East. In seeking to create a post-war Yugoslavia that would not be dominated entirely by the communists, Churchill had talks in Italy with the former ruler of Croatia, Dr. Ivan Subasic, and the Yugoslav Communist leader, Marshal Tito, at whose headquarters, in the German-occupied Balkans, Churchill’s son, Randolph, was serving.”25

Both Lincoln and Churchill understood that their audience extended far beyond their nation’s borders. The inspiration that Churchill provided was multinational. He recorded a broadcast for Czechoslovakia: “The hour of your deliverance will come. The soul of freedom is deathless; it cannot, and will not, perish.”26 General Ismay wrote that in October 1940: “We were alone in the Hawtrey Room at Chequers, and the clock had just chimed midnight. Mr. Churchill looked tired out and I had visions of an early bed. But suddenly he jumped up, exclaiming, ‘I believe that I can do it.’ Bells were rung; secretaries appeared; and he proceeded to dictate his first broadcast to France. He had no notes; but slowly and steadily, for a space of some two hours, the words poured forth.”27 Churchill broadcast to France: “Français! C’est moi, Churchill, qui vous parle.” In English, he said: “Frenchmen – rearm your spirits before it is too late. Remember how Napoleon said before one of his battles: ‘These same Prussians who are so boastful today were three to one at Jena, and six to one at Montmirail.’ Never will I believe that the soul of France is dead. Never will I believe that her place amongst the great nations of the world has been lost for ever.” French painter Paul Maze responded: “Every word you said was like every drop of blood in a transfusion.”28 On December 23, Churchill broadcast to the Italians, ending with an attack on Mussolini: “One man, and one man only, was resolved to plunge Italy after all these years of strain and effort into the whirlpool of war.”29

Like Churchill, Lincoln understood that the war could not be won by arms alone. It was necessary to compete for the hearts and minds at home and abroad. Speaking in Cincinnati in 1859, Lincoln had said: “In the first place we know that in a Government like this, in a Government of the people, where the voice of all the men of the country, substantially enter into the execution, – or administration rather – of the Government – in such a Government, what lies at the bottom of all of it, is public opinion.”30

For Further Reference

  1. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 108 (Letter from Elizabeth Layton, May 16, 1942.
  2. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 48.
  3. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 27.
  4. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 16.
  5. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, pp. 185-186.
  6. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940, p. 682.
  7. William Manchester, The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, p. 26.
  8. Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession, pp. 248-249.
  9. Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln, p. 102.
  10. Joshua Speed, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 38.
  11. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 70.
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 204
  13. Carl Schurz, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, pp. 307-308.
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (CWAL), Volume I, p. 273 (Temperance address, February 22, 1842).
  15. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 139 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Edward Dicey, 1862).
  16. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 120.
  17. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 155.
  18. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 423.
  19. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 376.
  20. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 437.
  21. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 193.
  22. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Abraham Lincoln, p. 584 (Adolph Pineton).
  23. Ida M. Tarbell, Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 191.
  24. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 524 (October 7, 1943).
  25. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p.68.
  26. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 819.
  27. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, pp. 176-177.
  28. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, pp. 855-857 ((Broadcast October 21, 1940).
  29. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, pp. 855-857. (Broadcast December 23, 1940).
  30. CWAL, Volume III, pp. 441-442 (Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio, September 17, 1859).
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