Mr. Lincoln’s Specialty

One of my altered-state conversations with Joseph Smallwood, an American of the 1800s, contained this description of Abraham Lincoln’s persuasive powers as part of a discussion of how everyone sees the world differently. As usual, sentences in italics are mine, those in Roman are Joseph’s.

[December 27, 2005]

Your mental processes furnish the analogies, always. That’s what they do. What somebody sets in front of you is one thing. The connections it suggests is a different thing. That is why three people looking at the same thing not only have their different opinions about it among them—they each are in their own world about it in a way. They each think about other things that suggest themselves. So you can see how rich this makes things. You take a thousand men surviving a battle, or even a hard winter, and they will each one of them have been associating it with stuff from their past before that – and not just in that lifetime, either! Everything they are is affected by everything that happens to every part of them. You think that’s simple?

It ain’t that it’s hard to understand how disagreements arise. It is more surprising when any two people see things the same! That’s why if you want to persuade people, you have to do it with pictures. And that was Mr. Lincoln’s specialty.

Now, don’t fight me on this, and you might learn something. State your objections so we get it on the record, so to speak.

Well, I know where you’re going, of course, but I don’t think of Lincoln’s painting pictures like Hitler (“the soldier at his hearth” and all that). I think of Lincoln’s speeches as being masterpieces of logic. You read his Cooper Union speech for instance, and it is just a remorseless piling up of fact on fact, conclusion on conclusion, til at the end you just can’t doubt that he has proved his point. I don’t see him drawing word pictures.

All right, that was a good summary of the objection. And it shows how words mislead. I’m saying Mr. Lincoln drew pictures and you are saying no he did not. That’s pretty black-or-white, ain’t it. But I don’t have to deny his overwhelming strength of logic and I wouldn’t if I had to. There was nobody could equal him in long term conviction – bringing you to it, I mean – because he didn’t do it with tricks or manipulation but with just what you said, a remorseless piling up of fact on fact.

Douglas could persuade you if you already wanted to be persuaded. Mr. Lincoln could show you things you hadn’t thought, and show ‘em to you so you never doubted ‘em thereafter even if you couldn’t remember how he got you there. And this was his genius, you see, and this is why you aren’t yet seeing him (you are as I write this long sentence, but until now you didn’t)..

Mr. Lincoln would start with a proposition that sounded simple and flat as old beer. Then he would start piling fact on fact, as you say, and entirely without bells or flourishes and ornament. Flat, steady, one small step at a time. Dull. Undeniable. And that is the way he would lead you – not trying for emotional effects along the way; avoiding those effects, until at the end when you got there you were in a frame of mind that said there wasn’t any other straight way to see it. And you felt like you reasoned it out with him. You had been taken there by your own steps, it felt like, and you couldn’t not see it – not when he was at his best – unless you either started from a position too far away, so you never hooked up with that he was building, or you were listening only intending to get ammunition to shoot against it. And even that, Mr. Lincoln didn’t mind. He encouraged it, in fact, because then when you began shooting at his argument you were shooting at the people he had already convinced!

You see it? Mr. Lincoln was a prairie lawyer. He had spent his life in politics and in law. They both involved the same thing – persuading simple people to see complicated things and see ‘em his way.

What is taught to you without tricks, you remember and you trust. What is just arm-waving and logic-chopping and emotional appeal, you may be persuaded for a while – but then when something else comes in to contradict it, you don’t have the same staying power. And if it happens that the facts support what you persuaded ’em about –in other words if things happened just about the way you said they had to, why, you’d be a fool not to listen to somebody who’d done the work of thinking it out for you. You couldn’t repeat the logic you had heard, and you couldn’t say any more why you knew what you did, but it didn’t matter. You was changed. Now ain’t that painting pictures?

You were thinking I meant painting scenes that tug on the heart-strings like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No, that kind of picture makes clear to people where they stand on something. It don’t tell ’em what to do, and it don’t tell ’em who to trust to know what to do. Mr. Lincoln’s pictures were pictures of the situation. We were here, says he, and then this happened, and it meant this; and that happened, and it did this to things; and then this happened and the result was so—and now here we are, and if we ain’t careful (he’d ’a’ said “keerful.” I can hear him still) we’re going to wind up here and then what will we do? You see? For people who didn’t know what the meaning of things was, it was irresistible! They left different than they came. I knew I did, the only time I had the honor and pleasure of hearing him, back in ’58.

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