“WITH PUBLIC SENTIMENT, NOTHING CAN FAIL. WITHOUT IT, NOTHING CAN SUCCEED.” – ABRAHAM LINCOLN
If Lincoln felt that he could get people to see things his way, he would move forward; but he was never so far ahead of the people that he would try to push them if they were not ready for the next step.
In 1860, Lincoln promised to contain, not end, slavery to get elected, as the majority of Americans were already weary from 40 years of national compromises on the subject.
Although Lincoln would’ve loved nothing better than to get rid of slavery, he even endorsed a constitutional amendment that kept Congress from interfering with slavery where it existed to bring the South back into the national fold – a policy in which the majority of Northerners supported.
However, even this language did not satisfy the Southerners who feared that Lincoln and the Republicans would break their word; which he didn’t for the first 400 or so days in office.
In fact, in two military cases, he overrode his generals’ attempts to emancipate slaves they encountered in Virginia and Missouri – maintaining that it was his decision to make.
Lincoln also knew that if the war became about slavery, the Union would lose the support of many Northerners, of which it was estimated that only a minority were in favor of abolition; not to mention those in the border Union states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia, where slavery was still legal.
On the other hand, he knew he wasn’t going to have the support of Britain and France – or at least their non-support of the Confederacy – until he did make the war about ending slavery.
With a Republican majority in Congress, he might have been able to force through a Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery in his first two years in office, but public opinion was not yet there.
The slave border-states were still there, however, and they would have most likely gone over to the Confederacy if an amendment was passed.
It wasn’t until 1862, after the Union had been soundly defeated on the battlefield, that Lincoln found reason, and a way, to emancipate slaves in his role as Commander-In-Chief – using it as a tactic to undermine Confederate resources.
If he were to take away slaves from the South and add them to the Union Army and its resources, it would be a war strategy.
Lincoln further justified emancipating slaves by, of all things, using the old pro-slavery argument that slaves were property and not people, because a commander traditionally has the right to take property that can be seen as supporting the enemy.
Still, he could not introduce the Emancipation Proclamation until Northern emotion could rally enough to believe that they could win the war.
In August 1862, after victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln finally felt that he would have enough support to free slaves in the states that were in rebellion.
As the Union Army progressed into the South during the remainder of the war, close to 200,000 slaves fled to Union lines, and joined the army as troops or as support personnel.
Though some in the North claimed that the war was now about slavery, it was too late by this point in time for these opponents; opinion in the North had finally switched enough in light of Lincoln’s argument that it was a strategic move.
Furthermore, Lincoln used it as a device to give the South one last chance politically.
He introduced it in August 1862 as a preliminary proclamation that would not become final until the year 1900 if the South laid down their arms and rejoined the Union.
When the South did not come back, Northerners saw that as even more reason that the Confederacy needed to be defeated.
Lincoln once wrote, “A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap!”
Before the election of 1864, with some conservative and moderate Republicans fearful that abolitionist Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase would threaten Lincoln’s nomination by the Republican Party, it was recommended that Lincoln introduce a Constitutional Amendment to abolish slavery.
However, Lincoln knew the time was still not right; he had to hold together a tenuous Northern coalition for continued support of the war.
In an article by John Forney of the Washington Daily Chronicle, he applauded Lincoln’s sense of timing with regard to public sentiment:
“…the most truly progressive man of the age, because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.”
After the election, circumstances finally fell into place for Lincoln: The Republicans possessed overwhelming control of Congress, the Northern coalition was in full support of the war, and General William Tecumseh Sherman successfully completed his “March to the Sea” through the South.
It was only then that Lincoln was able to get a Constitutional amendment banning slavery passed.
- Instead of dividing the nation even further by prioritizing abolition over union, Lincoln was able to maintain majority support among his people throughout the war.
- Lincoln was able to progress the opinion of the American public by making a series of minor decisions on slavery that were emphasized as war tactics.
- Once Lincoln’s first goal of reunifying the country was within hand, he was able to take the final jump toward his second goal of permanent and complete abolition.
Avoid too much, too soon. Having vision is an essential trait of being a leader, but it’s only effective when everyone else can see it, too. Bring your people along slowly, accomplishing a series of small steps before you get to the big leap.
For more practical tips on avoiding rushing ahead in your organization, see “How Tech Startups Can Avoid Building Too Much Too Soon” by the Young Entrepreneur Council at Forbes.