I recently wrote an article on how Lincoln used his power over words in two very different ways. Early in his political career, he slandered and mocked his political opponents. But he grew very uncomfortable with this conduct, and later in his career he channeled this same power over words to build bridges with his adversaries and to handle the bitter attacks his critics hurled on him with grace and wisdom.
Here is a link to the article:
Besides what I have documented in this article, there is one other remarkable chapter to this story.
Just as Beethoven scripted powerful moments of silence in his symphonies, so Lincoln too scripted critical periods of silence on his leadership path. After so actively proclaiming and debating his positions on national issues for several years, Lincoln went silent right after his historic Cooper Union speech against slavery that brought the Republicans to their feet and catapulted him into national prominence. He stayed silent all the way to capturing the Republican nomination for President, then all the way to winning the Presidential election, and then all the way to his arrival in Washington D.C. for the inauguration. During this period, he refused to make any speeches despite the demands and expectations he faced to further explain himself.
It was a tense, polarized and emotional climate in American politics, and Lincoln found it prudent to not give anyone the chance to feel antagonized by any words or positions he might have offered at that time.
Here’s more on this remarkable period of silence in Lincoln’s life, from Harold Holzer, the chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. Writing in the New York Times, Holzer tell us:
“I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print and open for inspection for all,” he insisted. Conservatives demanding reassurances that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed and progressives eager that he denounce the earliest expressions of Southern secession as treason were equally disappointed. Saying nothing, Lincoln believed, did the least damage to his fragile winning coalition of moderate Westerners and abolitionist Easterners — a coalition that yet might be called upon to resist rebellion by force.
To “press a repetition” of his long-held views “on those who have refused to listen,” Lincoln insisted, “would be wanting of self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.”
Don't get me wrong – Lincoln’s silence was not a sign of his being confused, irresolute or shy of taking tough actions. Prior to his inauguration, a collection of prominent politicians gathered for a “National Peace Convention." Their goal was to save the union at all costs – to quell all the clamors for secession by Southern states – by passing legislation that would, in effect, guarantee and preserve the institution of slavery. Here is what Holzer tells us about what Lincoln was quietly doing in response, behind the scenes, even as he maintained his official silence:
Lincoln commenced issuing instructions to Republican allies on Capitol Hill on precisely how they should vote on whatever compromise bills ultimately reached Congress. These Lincoln marked “private” or “strictly confidential,” though he knew his allies would usefully circulate his views anyway. And there was no mistaking his policy now.
“Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery,” he all but ordered Senator Lyman Trumbull. “Have none if it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.” To Congressman Elihu Washburne he was equally explicit: “hold firm, as with a chain of steel.” Masterful inactivity had finally morphed into a form of secret dictatorship: quiet in public, loud and clear behind the scenes. Without his support, the convention’s toxic antidotes to the secession crisis died in Congress, just as Lincoln hoped.
By the time he rose on the Capitol portico for his inaugural on March 4, Lincoln had brilliantly employed his secret weapon of masterly inactivity to distance himself from sectional rancor, dispel fears of his alleged radicalism without appearing too conservative, preserve his tenuous political coalition, successfully discourage (at least until then) Upper South secession, buy time for careful Cabinet selection, guarantee his once-uncertain official election to the presidency and, most important of all, discourage compromise that would have violated his unyielding opposition to spreading slavery.
Masterly inactivity did not prevent secession or a war over slavery. But that was never Lincoln’s point — and any given alternative would probably have sped things up. Instead, it bought him the time to prepare for the coming conflict, a fact that too few acknowledged at the time — or him credit for since.
Lincoln broke his silence with one of his most inspiring speeches, at his First Inauguration.
In recent times, I have had to grapple with some challenging issues within a social community I belong to. After much discussion and debate that did not lead to any alignment, I concluded that it was best to stay silent and, if prodded, only offer a reminder of my already-expressed position on issues. I was much criticized by some for pulling back from further engagement. Studying this moment in Lincoln’s life brought a reassuring validation to me that in fact a respectful silence can at times be the most eloquent expression of one’s thoughts, feelings and positions on issues.
So do you deploy silence as part of your strategic communication arsenal? Are there situations where you get drawn to speaking where instead you could gain more by cultivating Lincoln’s discipline of silence? Or, like Lincoln’s first inauguration address, is it time for you to break your silence and engage resolutely on those sensitive issues you have shied away from openly staking a position on?
- Prof. Hitendra Wadhwa
Friday, 15 June 2012
Friday, 15 June 2012
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