If you need support from your people, ask yourself what would win over your sentiments. For Abraham Lincoln, that meant the Union had to be attacked by the South.
Lincoln was excellent at winning reasoned arguments in Washington D.C. Yet, upon election, he sensed that he would need more than just constitutional rights to stand on if he was to win the emotional support of the people in a conflict with the South. So, Lincoln tapped into human nature.
One of the first dictums of growing up human is that we should not start a fight, but we do have every right to defend ourselves if attacked. In a fight, the attacked almost always gets the sympathy and the empathy from those whose opinions matter most; not the aggressor.
Lincoln’s friend, Orville Browning, further reinforced this notion in a letter to Lincoln before he was inaugurated: “In any conflict…between the government and the seceding States, it is very important that the traitors shall be the aggressors, and that they be kept constantly and palpably in the wrong. “
“The plan succeeded,” he later told Browning. “They attacked (Fort) Sumter— it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could.”[i]
In response, thousands of young men volunteered for service in the army and navy to come to the aid of their country. The media, including the newspapers that were most notoriously anti-Lincoln and anti-Republican, decried the attack on the fort and called for war on the rebellion.
He had already set the stage for where his people could lay blame in his inaugural address a month before:
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”
In making this statement, Lincoln put the onus of the upcoming war upon the South. For those of us who have not studied the Civil War closely, we might’ve thought it obvious that an overwhelming majority of Northerners would have gone for their guns the minute the Southern states declared their independence, but this was not so. For many in the North, there was either a feeling of “good riddance!” or the thought that these people had every right to secede if they felt their rights as Americans were being trampled on.
It was absolutely necessary for Northerners to feel as if they were being attacked by Southerners for there to be a defense of the Union. Lincoln’s actions and words helped make that feeling obvious to them.
- Northerners adopted an “us against the world” mentality that kept morale high and a common goal in mind.
- Politicians, media, and voters who were previously against Lincoln rallied around him (nothing unites like a common enemy).
- This tried and true method of leading a nation into a conflict succeeded once again (refer to almost every war ever fought).
- Northern resolve matched that of the South’s, which was absolutely necessary for victory.
Tap into human nature to win the hearts of your people and get them behind a goal.
How else can leaders win the hearts of their people? Is this a form a manipulation, and is it wrong?
For more on winning over your people, see “Excite Employees by Tapping Their Minds and Hearts,” by John Kotter at Forbes.