Persuasion and Logic From Abraham Lincoln

Whether you’re starting a company, building a product, or shaping public policy, each one always start with an idea. It’s not just one “aha!” idea. The difficulty in all 3 rests in the organization, analysis, and prioritization of mixed and mashed ideas timed around history, social forces, timing and luck. Philosophically, a product with 50+ features is hardly different than a legislator’s stance on a complex issue.  Each feature is an opportunity to improve a workflow with many parallels to a legislator’s most recent article, debate, or stump speech pushing an agenda or converting a new follower.

My position on selling ACT software to an early stage startup today would go almost as well as convincing an owner of a microbrewery that prohibition of alcohol is a good thing and should be re-instated. However, at some point in our history, ACT software was bleeding edge and the prohibition of alcohol was the law.

As always, times change and minds mend; this is reflected in software, law, politics, sports, and culture. Understanding how generations before us used the same tools we have today: language, logic, persuasion, etc. — timed with public opinion, can provide invaluable lessons for those seeking to learn and do good.

A great example in history dates back to 1854 and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Quick history refresher: the Missouri Compromise was the regulation of slavery in the country’s western territories except Missouri. It was agreed upon by pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters in Congress at the time (1820).

Fast forward to 1854. Abraham Lincoln has been out of politics for 5 years since his last term as a Member of the House of Representatives (Illinois). For almost 5 years, he focused solely on law.

Yet, “In 1854,” he writes, “his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before.”

Lincoln “took the stump” that summer with the intention to help the re-election of Hon. Richard Yates to Congress. If the Missouri Compromise was repealed, landowners in the western territories could decide on slavery based off “popular sovereignty.” A legislation born by Stephen Douglas.

Lincoln’s passion and eloquent argument against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise is stated below.

“This declared indifference,” he says, “but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world; enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites; causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity; and especially because it forces so many good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest…. Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism, and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri Compromise, repeal all compromises, repeal the Declaration of Independence, repeal all past history, you still cannot repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man’s heart that slavery extension is wrong, and out of the abundance of his heart his mouth will continue to speak.”

Lincoln goes on and rips into Douglas’ suggestion for popular sovereignty:

“Here, or at Washington, I would not trouble myself with the oyster laws of Virginia, or the cranberry laws of Indiana. The doctrine of self-government is right—absolutely and eternally right—but it has no just application as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say, that whether it has such application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just what he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism…. I particularly object to the new position which the avowed principle of this Nebraska law gives to slavery in the body politic. I object to it because it assumes that there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another. I object to it as a dangerous dalliance for a free people—a sad evidence that, feeling prosperity, we forget right; that liberty, as a principle, we have ceased to revere…. Little by little, but steadily as man’s march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now, from that beginning, we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’ These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon.”

Read more on this and Lincoln here.


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