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Lincoln's question

Let us consider a text-book case of well-executed strategy. Our story starts in 1858. Abraham Lincoln is running for the US senate. His opponent, Stephen Douglas, is among the most prominent politicians of the day. As the candidate for the Northern Democrats, he would come within inches of the presidency in 1860.

As a senator, Douglas was already a powerful politician. In 1850, he had contributed to the Missouri compromise, which essentially boxed in slavery in the South-East, preventing its spread to California. But in 1854, Douglas had a pivotal role in the repeal of that same compromise. This repeal re-opened the possible expansion of slavery into newly formed states. It also ensured that slavery was the prominent issue of the day, and would contribute to the secession and the civil war.

strategic analysis

As always, a strategic analysis starts with the question of ultimate motive. In Lincoln's case, it was the end of slavery. It was not the advancement of his political career, although his anti-slavery stance would eventually elevate him to the presidency.

In 1858, Stephen Douglas was already a likely candidate for the presidency, and it was clear the Democrat would do nothing to hamper, let alone abolish slavery. With a keen eye on his ultimate motive, Lincoln's tactical priority was to prevent Douglas' rise to the presidency. An opportunity for just that presented itself in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

the question

For these debates, Lincoln asked whether slavery could be excluded from a state (territory), prior to the formation of the state's constitution. As Henry Ketcham shows (in The Life of Abraham Lincoln, the question was intended to present Douglas with a wedge-issue:

His friends argued against posing this question, warning Lincoln that "If you do, you can never be senator." To this, he replied: "Gentlemen, I am killing larger game. If Douglas answers, he can never be president, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this."

Quoting Ketcham:

It is not probable that Lincoln expected to be in 1860 the nominee of the Republican party. But he did see the danger of the election of Douglas to the presidency. He was willing to surrender the senatorial election to save the country from a Douglas administration. The sacrifice was made. The prediction proved true. Lincoln lost the senatorship, Douglas lost the presidency.


Lincoln succeeded where Napoleon failed: he never lost sight of his ultimate motive. This is why Lincoln was successful in ending slavery, while Napoleon failed to keep his empire. Lincoln's "larger game" quotation also shows that this was not coincidental. Lincoln must have had a keen, perhaps innate, strategic insight.

Lincoln's paradigm

Why did Lincoln have the right paradigm on slavery, while Douglas failed to acquire such an understanding? My take on this is admittedly speculative, but I will present it anyway.

Lincoln did not go to Harvard or Yale. Rather, he was self-educated. While others were in college, young Abraham navigated boats down the Mississippi and witnessed slavery firsthand. Lincoln was thus rooted in reality, and I submit that this contributed to Lincoln's superior moral compass.