No disrespect intended, but if our 16th president can be cast as a vampire hunter, then why not as a PR maven? He never really hunted vampires, but Lincoln, arguably the greatest president in the history of the United States, did display a fierce understanding of how to communicate and how to put public opinion to work for him in a way that future politicians would both envy and emulate.
I’m certainly not the first person to explore this theme, write about it, or admire Lincoln for it, but this being his birthday week, it’s a subject worth revisiting. If for no other reason than to remind people that public relations can be used for good, not evil.
Lincoln’s humble beginnings, lack of formal education, and unpolished social skills made him an unlikely national hero, let alone one of the world’s most admired figures 150 years after his death. But those are the very traits and experiences that gave him insight into the people he governed. Insight that his political contemporaries not only lacked but derided. (Although nearly all who knew him well would come to admire and respect his intellect and his humanity.)
Lincoln could empathize with average Americans. He could make a point easier and better by telling a story—often involving self-deprecating or off-color humor—than by dictating dogma.
Lincoln understood timing, themes, and opportunity. A cynic might call him a manipulative opportunist. I prefer to think of him as a genius who understood human nature.
Lincoln was, indeed, anti-slavery, but never an ardent abolitionist. Indeed, in his first inaugural address, he made a point of calming the Confederacy by saying, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so…”
He didn’t pursue the Civil War to abolish slavery. He pursued the war to maintain the Union. While doing so, he understood that the institution of slavery was the foundation of the Confederate economy and the Confederate war effort. And he reasoned that as “Commander-in-Chief,” he did have the power of emancipation. In 1862, the war was not going well for the Union and Lincoln knew that issuing the Emancipation Proclamation while the Union Army struggled would not stir the masses. Instead, he waited for the momentum of the Union victory at Antietam, then announced that if the Confederacy did not rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863—an unlikely capitulation—the slaves in the Confederate states would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Not binding in and of itself, the Emancipation Proclamation still re-cast the purpose of the war and strengthened the resolve of much of the nation, which was growing weary of battle. The timing was right. The message was right. And Lincoln was “on message.”
Anyone who is cynical about Abraham Lincoln’s genius or motives, however, has never read his second inaugural address.
After winning a second term, knowing the war was near its end and that the Confederacy was finished, Lincoln might have gloated. He might have stuck his finger in the eye of the South. Instead, he chose to lead as President of the United States. He urged, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Abraham Lincoln understood public relations on the most human level: treat people with dignity, respect their history, and resolve to do what’s right.