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Differ We Must

Since 2004, radio personality Steve Inskeep has hosted National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” During Covid lockdown in 2020, at home with time to spare, Inskeep researched and wrote a book that was published this past week. 

Inskeep found its title, “Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America,” in a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to his good friend Joshua Speed, dated August 24, 1855.

Last week, Inskeep explained to Amna Nawaz of PBS News Hour, and Scott Simon of NPR, that Speed was from Kentucky, that he was from a rich family that owned more than fifty slaves. Speed approved of slavery. Lincoln also was from Kentucky, but his family was poor, and Lincoln hated slavery. 

In that letter, Lincoln wrote, “I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes and unrewarded toil; but I bite my lip and keep quiet.”

Lincoln then recollected a journey that he and Speed went on together, “in 1841, on a steamboat from Louisville to St. Louis.” Lincoln wrote, “There were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me.”

Lincoln then pointed out, “It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. I do oppose the extension of slavery because my judgment and feelings so prompt me.”

Lincoln then wrote, “If for this you and I must differ, differ we must.”

But when he signed the letter, he wrote, “Your friend forever, A. Lincoln.” Although they did not share the same opinion on slavery, Lincoln chose to maintain their friendship, keep it alive.

This is one reason how Lincoln succeeded in a divided America. He avoided hurting others’ feelings. He hesitated to exclude people. He kept the door open. He burnt few bridges.

Yet, Lincoln was a master politician. He understood that democracy works when a majority of voters support and vote for laws that promote their self-interest. 

Inskeep explained, that Lincoln told residents in the western territories, like Kansas and Nebraska, that it was in their self-interest to prohibit slavery from expanding there, because it would eliminate paying jobs that non-slaves would want to pursue and obtain.

In addition, Inskeep underscored Lincoln’s ability to relax people by telling them stories, cracking jokes, to draw them away from their harsher opinions and to align more with his.

Inskeep also noted another quality in Lincoln; the future president kept much in reserve. His campaign manager David Davis wrote of Lincoln’s ability to say little, saying, “he was the most reticent, secretive man I ever saw or expect to see.”  

Steve Inskeep repeated Leonard Swett’s comment upon Lincoln, saying, “He always told only enough of his plans and purposes to induce the belief that he had communicated all, yet he reserved enough to have communicated nothing.” I say, that is a talent to admire and pursue.

The middle years of the nineteenth century were fractious times, far more so than now. The northern states favored halting the extension of slavery, but the southern states disagreed.

Because Abraham Lincoln ran for President of the United States in 1860, and was elected, voters in eleven states voted to secede, or to vacate from the Union. Between December 20, 1860, and July 2, 1861, in six months, this Union of States split apart.

In Inskeep’s book, he lists sixteen people with whom Lincoln agreed to disagree. In addition to Joshua Speed, there was Stephen Douglas, William Seward, George McClellan, Frederick Douglass, Mary Ellen Wise, Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and others. 

Inskeep said, “Lincoln didn’t ostracize people. He didn’t take a Puritan approach to politics. He tried to persuade them. That often failed. With some he was not going to compromise.”

Lincoln knew, Inskeep said, “that he had to figure out a way to reach out to people who differed with him to find enough agreement that they could form a majority,” that would then vote and change the laws written into the Constitution that permitted slavery.

In that effort, Abraham Lincoln succeeded. 


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