What You Say When You Need To Say No To Someone You Respect: A Great Letter From Abraham Lincoln
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
In November of 1860, when word reached the Deep South that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President, there was outrage and calls
for secession. The “Cotton States,” as they were known then, had not even put Lincoln’s name on the ballot—not that it would have mattered even if they had. He received less than 1 percent of the vote in Kentucky–1.364 out of 146, 216 votes cast–and Kentucky was the state of his birth.
Deep South politicians promptly sent invitations to assemble for the purpose of a forming a confederacy of slave states. Precisely a month before Lincoln was inaugurated, on February 4, 1861, six states met in Montgomery, Alabama and formally created a Southern confederacy.
It is not generally understood that the Confederacy was formed before Lincoln’s inauguration, before he ever had a chance to do anything good or bad as President.
During those months in-between his election and his inauguration, Lincoln decided that he would make no public statements until he was officially inaugurated. (In those days, electors met in February, and the inauguration took place in March.) As President-elect, Lincoln felt that any comment might further alarm those who hated him in the South, or lose the support of those who supported him in the North.
So, despite constant efforts by journalists and politicians to get him to change his mind, Lincoln remained silent.
Then came a hand-delivered letter written by ex-Senator Truman Smith of Connecticut, whom Lincoln had been friends with when they both served in Congress. Smith urged Lincoln to say something. Protracted silence, Smith felt, imperiled the nation’s economy, and might trigger a collapse on Wall Street.
What Lincoln Did and Said
While the bearer of the letter waited, Lincoln hand-wrote a reply. First, he wrote “Private and Confidential,” something Lincoln often wrote to prevent his private correspondence from making its way into the papers. (This strategy was partially effective)
Then Lincoln wrote: “It is with the most profound appreciation of your motive, and highest respect for your judgment too, that I feel constrained, for the present, at least to make no declaration for the public.”
Lincoln’s letter continued: “First, I could say nothing which I have not already said, and, which is in print, and open for the inspection of all. To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.”
Lincoln did not want to upset the financial markets, so he carefully drafted a narrative that Smith could release on his own: “I find Mr. Lincoln is not insensible to any uneasiness in the minds of candid men, nor to any commercial or financial, depression, or disturbance in the country if there be such. Still he does not, so far as at present advised, deem it necessary, or proper for him to make, or authorize, any public declaration. He thinks candid men need only to examine his views already before the public.”
Then the President-elect did something remarkable. He showed the statement that he had just written to the resident correspondent of the New York Tribune, a newspaper Lincoln knew to be friendly to Republicans. That newspaper subsequently published a report that essentially repeated the message that Lincoln had written for Smith.
(For a full discussion of this episode in Lincoln’s life, see Harold Holzer, Lincoln President Elect; 2008:73,74)
What’s In It For You?
How can you use this letter from long ago as a part of your own leadership vocabulary?
Well, ask yourself how many times you have not wanted to do something that a friend, whom you respect, has wanted you to do. Plenty of times, I suspect.
Here’s what you do.
One. Pay them a sincere compliment up-front, just like Lincoln did. Here are Lincoln’s words: “It is with the most profound appreciation of your motive, and highest respect for your judgment too…” Lincoln covered all the bases with his compliment. Lincoln wrote that he had “profound respect” for Smith’s motive.
But Lincoln went a step further. He made sure that his friend knew that he respected his judgment, too.
Two. Be careful not to over-explain. Lincoln briefly put on display his political acumen by making a distinction between those who were honest enough to listen, and those who would not listen, even if he said it again and again.
Three. Lincoln had a formidable will, and he was not likely to change his position, once he had made up his mind. But in this case, Lincoln left the door slightly ajar. He wrote, “For the present,” twice in his reply.
Four. Lincoln found a way to compromise. He would not make a public statement himself, but it was OK for Smith to make a statement. Lincoln, who was a master at utilizing the media, showed the statement to a friendly journalist. Lincoln understood that the journalist would be eager for any tidbit of news, and Lincoln felt he would not distort what he reported
This episode is a terrific example of ways that today’s leaders can use history to practical advantage. Think of this letter by Abraham Lincoln, and the issues surrounding it, as a case study. It has the characteristics of case studies that are used in business schools: What was the problem? What were the options? Who were the players? What resources were available? What was the outcome? Those are questions that you can ask and answer whenever you are confronted with a difficult situation.
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