The Lock Down Log: Communication Lessons from Lincoln

This morning I was reading ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a winner of the Pulitzer. A particular section fascinated me for it exhibited the effective use of metaphor to break-down a complex issue.


1860’s America. The major political issue of the era was the question of slavery. The great debate was whether slavery’s expansion be curtailed only to states where it currently existed or should it be allowed to expand unfettered to new territories (joining the union).

Lincoln’s Snake Metaphor

Lincoln, among the contenders for the Republican nomination for the Presidential election, maintained that slavery, as immoral as it was, may continue to exist in states where it was currently present while it must not be allowed to expand into newer territories. He struck a balance between two competing goals of sustaining the solidarity of the Union and keeping a check on the menace of slavery.

Abe had to communicate this position to the American public, that included a range of positions on the slavery question. To this purpose, in a speech to a overflowing City Hall at Hartford, Connecticut, Lincoln employed the metaphor of snakes:

If I saw a venomous snake crawling on the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them…

…But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide!…

…The new territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not.

Lincoln’s Speech at City Hall, Hartford, Connecticut (March 5, 1860) – the version quoted above is excerpted from Team of Rivals

Was it Effective?

Lincoln enabled his audience to think through a constitutionally and a morally complex issue of the expansion of slavery in common words like venomous snakes (slavery), children (American people) and beds (territories). The analogy was simple and effective. Contrast this to how Henry Seward, Lincoln’s peer and a front runner for the Republican nomination, articulated the same stance. Seward warned that if slavery were allowed to expand into new territories like Kansas, his countrymen would have “introduced a Trojan horse” into the new territory.

Who do you thing was more persuasive? Lincoln or Seward?

Doris captures in a sentence what lacked in Seward’s approach, “While Seward’s classically trained fellow senators immediately grasped his intent, the Trojan horse image carried neither the instant accessibility of Lincoln’s snake-in-the-bed story nor its memorable originality.”

Lincoln regarded educating public opinion as the greatest challenge for a leader in democratic society. This stands true for micro democratic spaces like home and work.