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 US 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? Can you learn anything from it?

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, whenever you consider a compromise, will this get you what you really want. It may be true that getting half a loaf is better than no loaf at all, but you must get at least half a loaf.

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.  The United States itself is  a compromise between large states and small, between different regions, between capital and labor, rich and poor. There have always been too many competing interests in the nation for  one party or one interest group to get everything it wants all the time.

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. Not a year would pass, Lincoln predicted, before they would insist that the nation make war with Cuba.

The principle is still true. Take contemporary politics as an example.  President Obama came into office vowing to reach across the aisle and find common ground. What Obama discovered in prolonged negotiations over health care reform was that compromising eventually became a kind of blackmail scheme.  If you don’t do this, Mr. President, we will shut down the government, etc. etc.

One can argue, perhaps persuasively, that President Obama came away with half a loaf, that he would have gotten nothing had he not made major concessions. But his willingness to make those concessions—often announced before negotiations began—did not get him respect.

Quite the opposite. Instead of being portrayed as a generous man of good will, as a President who put the needs of the nation ahead of partisan interests, Obama was viewed by his enemies with contempt, as inexperienced , naive, and weak.

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

If you do, ask three questions that Lincoln usually asked: One. If I compromise, will I get at least half a loaf? Two. If I compromise, do I have the capability of giving the other party what he or she demands? Three. If I compromise,is the other party willing to make a compromise too, or am I the only one being asked to compromise? If the answer to those questions is yes, then by all means compromise.  But if the answer is no, do what Lincoln did. Draw the line. End the negotiation.

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

–From the forthcoming book Lincoln on Communication 

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—Gene Griessman is an award-winning professional speaker, actor, and consultant. His video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, contact us at 404-435-2225 or abe@mindspring.com Learn more about Gene Griessman at presidentlincoln.com and atlantaspeakersbureau.com

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