When Compromise is Wrong: A Letter from Lincoln

What You Say When You Want To Draw The Line
By Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

When should you draw a line in the sand?

That was the big question back in January of 1861. Abraham Lincoln, who had been elected President in November, waited nervously in Springfield, Illinois as the Union disintegrated. He would not take office until March. And things were getting scary.  It was the middle of what some historians call “the great secession winter.” One cotton state after another was voting to secede. South Carolina, then Mississippi and Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Hapless 15th President James Buchanan sat in Washington, virtually paralyzed as cabinet members resigned, as Southern rebels joined state militia and seized federal forts.

The very week that Alabama voted to leave the Union, a letter arrived in Springfield from a respected Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania named James T. Hale. Hale urged Lincoln to reconsider reviving the Missouri Compromise. Doing that just might save the Union, Hale thought.

(The Missouri Compromise line had created a line across the U.S. at parallel 36 30°. That line decided whether new states coming into the Union would be slave or free. Any state below the line would be a slave state. Any above free. On today’s map, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California are below the line.)

That would mean slave states all the way to the Pacific, but it just might  save the Union.

Talk about a tough decision!

On the one hand disunion and possible civil war. On the other, slave states from coast to coast. There was no way that Lincoln could not forget that the Republican Party was founded on the principle that slavery should never be allowed to expand into the western territories.

So, what to do?  Lincoln drew the proverbial line in the sand.

Here is an excerpt from the letter Lincoln wrote to Hale:

“We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, fore we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender it is the end of us, and of the government.

“They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum (in accordance with desire). A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union…

“There is, in my judgment, but one compromise which would really settle the slavery question and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory.”

Can this episode from history be of any use to you?

Yes, if you reach an impasse in your own negotiations–what is commonly called a deal breaker.  You may decide that the other party is not negotiating in good faith—that they have no real desire to reach an equitable compromise. Or you may decide that the other party’s demands are unreasonable–that they want more than you can offer, or something that violates an important principle.

This was the situation Lincoln found himself in. The demands were more than he could pay. And a principle was at stake. A very big one. The Republican Party had been founded on the principle that slavery would never be allowed to expand westward. Period. If Republicans yielded on that, there was no further reason to have a party.

So, ask yourself this question whenever you consider a compromise: Am I being asked to give up something absolutely essential?

Lincoln, in his days as a lawyer, often advised his clients to compromise.  And in politics, Lincoln made compromises again and again. Compromise is the basis of the American system of government.

But in 1861, with regard to this issue of allowing slavery to expand into the West, Lincoln felt there was nothing of value to be gained by compromising. He told one Springfield visitor, “By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican party become a mere sucked egg, all shell and no principle to it.”

Further, Lincoln believed the secessionists would be back with more demands if they won this round of bargaining.

I hope that you never have to play the kind of high-stakes games that Presidents sometimes have to play. But you probably will someday find yourself in a situation where you may need to draw the line.

If you do, ask questions that Lincoln usually asked.

Will my concession lead to more concessions? Will I give up something absolutely vital? Is the other party dealing in good faith?

(See Harold Holzer, Lincoln President Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, 2008:222,223)

The Words Lincoln Lived By

“This is a book to cherish and share.”—Bill Marriott, CEO, Marriott International, Inc.

“Not only does Griessman give us Lincoln quotes, but he also weaves each one into a little jewel of an essay on that particular subject.” Wayne C. Temple, renowned Lincoln scholar, Illinois State Archives

A stirring, inspirational treasury of quotations from our greatest and most admired president, the book offers rich material for interpretation, reflection, and spiritual guidance.

You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.

Don’t leave yet. You’ve found a goldmine. Check out additional power phrases and unusual quotations.




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