Tap into Human Nature to Win Support

05 Jun


Lincoln stood atop the foundations of American government when it came to winning reasoned arguments in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the cabinet room of the White House.

Yet, he knew that he faced a much tougher battle inside the souls of the American people, where he had to gain their trust, love, and support.

To his great advantage, Lincoln seemed to know how to reach people already in his early years.

In an address before the Washingtonian Temperance Society in 1842, he spoke of the overly aggressive approach temperance movements took toward those who drank alcohol:

“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 you will, is the great high-road 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 judgment, 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….you shall be no more able to pierce him than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

Upon election, Lincoln knew that conflict was coming, but he could not know what the extent of that conflict would be, or how long it would go on.

If it came to arms, however, Lincoln sensed that he would need more than just constitutional rights to stand on if he was to win Northern support – he had to have the emotional support of the people behind him.

It was here that Lincoln tapped into human nature.

One of the first dictums of growing up human is that we should not start a fight, but we do have every right to defend ourselves if attacked.

In a fight, the attacked almost always gets the sympathy and the empathy from those whose opinions matter most; not the aggressor.

Lincoln’s friend, Orville Browning, further reinforced this notion in a letter to Lincoln before he was inaugurated:  “In any conflict…between the government and the seceding States, it is very important that the traitors shall be the aggressors, and that they be kept constantly and palpably in the wrong. “

“The plan succeeded,” he later told Browning. “They attacked Sumter— it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could.”[i]

In response, thousands of young men volunteered for service in the army and navy to come to the aid of their country.

The media, including the newspapers that were most notoriously anti-Lincoln and anti-Republican, decried the attack on the fort and called for war on the rebellion.

He had already set the stage for where his people could lay blame in his inaugural address a month before:

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”

In making this statement, Lincoln put the onus of the upcoming war upon the South.

For those of us who have not studied the Civil War closely, we might’ve thought it obvious that an overwhelming majority of Northerners would have gone for their guns the minute the Southern states declared their independence, but this was not so.

For many in the North, there was either a feeling of “good riddance!” or the thought that these people had every right to secede if they felt their rights as Americans were being trampled on.

It was absolutely necessary for Northerners to feel as if they were being attacked by insolent Southerners for there to be a defense of the Union.

Lincoln’s actions and words helped make that feeling obvious to them.

The results?

  • Northerners adopted an “us against the world” mentality that kept morale high and a common goal in mind.
  • Politicians, media, and voters who were previously against Lincoln rallied around him (nothing unites like a common enemy).
  • This tried and true method of leading a nation into a conflict succeeded once again (refer to almost every war ever fought).
  • Northern resolve matched that of the South’s, which was absolutely necessary for victory.

The lesson?

Tap into human nature to win the hearts of your people and get them behind a goal.

For more on winning over your people, see “Excite Employees by Tapping Their Minds and Hearts,” by John Kotter at Forbes.

[i] Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2005-10-25). Team of Rivals (p. 324). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


Act with “malice toward none”

Life is a bow and you are an arrow

Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair….


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