Abraham Lincoln and the power of opinion

By Edward Achorn

If we hope to retain a representative democracy — always a difficult task — we will have to protect expressions of opinion and analysis, including unpopular ideas.

The heart of America remains the First Amendment — our right to question a powerful government without being punished or suppressed by that government.

Certainly, Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of public opinion in a free nation.

“Our government rests in public opinion,” Lincoln said in an 1856 speech. “Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.”

Two years later, during his Senate campaign debate against Stephen Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois, Lincoln touched on the theme again.

“In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions,” Lincoln said.

As an opinion writer for many years, with some successes in encouraging reform and defending the public’s rights, I always found those quotes both encouraging and perceptive.

Our nation’s freedoms, of course, were founded on the power of opinions expressed in newspapers and pamphlets in the 1760s, 1770s and 1780s.

Abraham Lincoln acted on this keen understanding of American politics. Like Winston Churchill, who fought to keep Britain dedicated to defeating the Nazis against frightening odds, Lincoln mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. In defending the prosecution of a civil war to keep America whole, he focused on preserving this nation and its precious liberties for future generations.

As I write about in my new book Every Drop of Blood, Lincoln spent his life studying words and their impact.

His stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln recalled that he started in childhood. “Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on — and when he came across a passage that Struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper & keep it there till he did get paper — then he would re-write it — look at it repeat it — He had a copy book — a kind of scrap book in which he put down all things and this preserved them,” she said.

For the rest of his life Lincoln jotted down interesting words and ideas, often stowing scraps in his stovepipe hat, that he pulled out later to be incorporated in his political life, including his brilliant speeches.

Lincoln’s view of the importance of molding public opinion is obviously shared by totalitarian regimes. They maintain state-run media that permit only approved points of view. They employ social pressure and government power to smear, punish and unperson those who disagree. They scorn expressions of support for individual liberties and civil rights. They control the populace by changing even the way people think about their country’s past. They imbue their people with fear to speak out. Such tactics seem to work on most of their citizens.

But if history shows us anything, it is that freedom works better than tyranny. People are vastly safer, wealthier, and happier in free societies.

In our own country, as the venue for the expression of thoughtful opinion shifts rapidly from printed newspapers to social media, efforts by government officials and technology giants to suppress unpopular or contrarian opinions are cause for alarm.

Under the First Amendment, Abraham Lincoln was able to challenge the monstrous injustice of slavery and argue for a different path for America. We need voices to speak out against injustices and defend freedom. Let us hope those voices will survive and persist in the years ahead.

Certainly, the world is immensely fortunate that it had such brilliant writers as Lincoln and Churchill molding opinion when their countries and the freedoms they embodied were at dire risk of being destroyed.

(Read more about Lincoln in Edward Achorn’s acclaimed new book, Every Drop of Blood).

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