Tipping the Scales

Michael Metzger

Schooling and stories
When you think of the American Civil War, what tipped the scales toward the North? Did they have better generals? Not if the names McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker mean anything to you. Did the North display better tactics? Not if you’re familiar with Bull Run, the Seven Days battle, and Fredericksburg. In fact, the South probably enjoyed better soldiers, field commanders and armaments. What tipped the scales toward the North is the same thing that often tips an enemy toward becoming a friend.

In an essay on the reasons for Confederate defeat in the Civil War, southern historian David M. Potter made a striking assertion: “If the Union and Confederacy had exchanged presidents with one another, the Confederacy might have won its independence.”1 How’s that? Jefferson Davis had received one of the finest educations of his day attending colleges in Kentucky and Mississippi, including Transylvania University, considered one of the best colleges west of the Appalachians. Davis had graduated from West Point and had received excellent training in rhetoric, logic, literature, and science.

Abraham Lincoln on the other hand was a self-taught man who reckoned he had about one year of formal schooling under his belt. He had mastered only a handful of books, including his favorites the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Shakespeare’s plays. How would swapping these two men have tipped the scales?

For all his schooling, Jefferson Davis “seemed to think in abstractions and to speak in platitudes.”2 Lincoln’s education had been reading stories rich in figurative language and metaphors. He was a storyteller. Davis postulated propositions while Lincoln painted pictures. Davis was analysis; Lincoln was anecdote. Potter says Lincoln’s stories tipped the scales in favor of the north.

The need for stories was never more evident than after the Battle of Gettysburg, the tipping point of the Civil War. The organizing committee for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg invited the erudite Edward Everett to give the main speech but he told the committee he would be unable to prepare an appropriate oration in such short order and requested postponing the date. The committee agreed and the dedication was reset for November 19. Almost as an afterthought, David Wills, the president of the committee, asked President Abraham Lincoln to make a “few appropriate remarks.” Everett gave a two-hour speech. Lincoln spoke for two minutes but reframed the story of Gettysburg. He used three parallel sets of images that were interwoven. Do you see them? They are past, present, future; continent, nation, battlefield; and birth, death, rebirth. He reframed enemies fighting to the death as a nation being born again.

Jonathan Swift said it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he has never reasoned into. Lincoln intuitively knew this. Francis Carpenter, the artist who spent six months at the White House during 1864 painting a picture of Lincoln and his cabinet, noted that the president’s “most powerful thought almost invariably took on the form of a figure of speech, which drove the point home, and clinched it, as few abstract reasoners are able to do.”3

Aristotle believed the soul never thought without a picture. Lincoln had soul; Davis did not. Jesus had soul, telling stories with metaphors like seeds and lilies and soils. “We may not always know it,” writes George Lakoff, “but we think in metaphor.”4 You capture the imagination by painting pictures, not disseminating data as Jefferson Davis did.

One of the reasons why Albert Einstein tipped away from the scientific and religious community was the way they thought. “I generally preferred to thinking in pictures, most notably in famous thought experiments, such as imagining watching lightning strikes from a moving train or experiencing gravity while inside a falling elevator,” he once told a psychologist. “I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”5 Einstein observed that many scientific and religious folk focus on data and debate. That was lost on him.

“All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor,” said C. S. Lewis.6 The value of a good picture is that “it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which seems hidden by the veil of familiarity.”7 After Lincoln finished the Gettysburg Address, Everett and others immediately recognized that he had tipped the scales. Everett wrote to the president the next day: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”8 The next time you want to win an opponent, trying telling a story to tip the scales in your favor.

1 David M. Potter, as quoted in James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 93.
2 Potter, p. 93.
3 McPherson, p. 98.
4 George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.
5 Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p. 9.
6 C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” The Importance of Language. ed. Max Black (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), p. 50.
7 C.S. Lewis, “The Language of Religion,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 133.
8 McPherson, p. 112.


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  1. The use of metaphor and story is powerful. It also helps to have the right idea.

    “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885), ‘Histoire d’un crime,’ 1852

  2. Mike,

    I’m trying to paint a picture or think of an image to capture this, but I’m a bit prosaic, so will say it in simple words. You are brilliant. THANKS.

    Hearts & Minds

  3. Come to think about the premise of this article some more, I wondered how the apostle Paul would have measured up. It seems like much of what he wrote in his epistles was more along the lines of data, reasoning, debate, argument, etc. rather than metaphor.

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