The Lincoln-Stevens Debate: Your True North and the swamp

by Steven Snyder on November 18, 2012

Steven SynderIn the Spielberg movie Lincoln, there is a scene where the bombastic and powerful House Ways and Means Chairman, Thaddeus Stevens privately debates the president.  Stevens, a staunch abolitionist, is concerned about Lincoln’s apparent equivocation on the issue of slavery, and urges unwavering adherence to a moral compass that points unambiguously toward “True North.” Lincoln counters that this is all well and good, except when your moral compass steers you into a swamp. Your True North doesn’t matter much then. You’re stuck in the swamp.

I’m not sure who came up with the brilliant swamp metaphor, Lincoln or screenplay writer Tony Kushner. Still, the tension between principles and pragmatism is at the root of many dilemmas facing leaders today.

Some leaders simplistically frame this in “either/or” terms: you can either be true to your principles or completely abandon your principles by succumbing to outside pressures. But extraordinary leaders like Lincoln seek a more nuanced understanding by harnessing the dialectical tension—forging solutions that embrace both the principles they hold dear while at the same time acknowledging the real-world factors that are often beyond their control.

Thaddeus Stevens was put to the test when asked to speak in front of the House of Representatives during the critical debate on the Thirteen Amendment that would abolish slavery. Stevens had long argued that slavery should be abolished on the basis of the principle that all men are equal, regardless of their race.  But on this occasion, he is cautioned that a full-throated and candid articulation of his views would be amplified by a fickle press, instigating fear among crucial Representatives, and lead to certain defeat of the measure.

At the moment of truth, Stevens backs down from his purely principled position, softening to the more palatable argument that all men should be treated equally under the law.  While certain radical Republicans were aghast, his more tempered plea was exactly what was called for under the circumstances, and the constitutional amendment passed by a meager two votes.

Stevens could have stuck to his original moral compass, which would have steered him directly into the swamp. Instead, through his struggle, he discovered a new authentic True North voice, one that worked in service of his ultimate purpose, the abolition of slavery.

The type of challenge that Stevens faced is very common in leadership. When we are tested through struggle, we need to clarify which values are most important to us. Very often a careful examination of the natural tension between principles and pragmatism fashions a deeper understanding of our moral compass. We seek a path that simultaneously honors our True North, while at the same time avoiding the swamp.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

MD Warner November 20, 2012 at 5:44 am

I stumbled upon your site because I recently saw the movie “Lincoln”. I have been a self taught student of Lincoln for many years and I have found the most interesting people share this interest. The “True North” dialogue in the movie caught my attention and your message here has given me much to think about. Its like moving a looking glass over a vast page choosing where to focus, and then acting upon that, leaving the rest to eternity at least for that moment. The trap is to become so focused on outcome that we sacrifice our own moral and ethical values in that process. Lincoln never lost sight of his own True North, yet he also held to his own values. Therein lies the genius.


Steven Snyder November 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm

You make a very good point here. It takes a real genius to follow your True North and also avoid the swamp.


Dan Kahan December 2, 2012 at 10:36 am

I am a stumbler too (pointed here by a friend, actually) & feel indebted to you (& MD Warner) for making me see the significance of this scene. To prove MD Warner’s point, for me Lincoln’s “true north” is in relation to Stephen Douglas, whose moderation was both noble and profoundly wrong. I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the resource that Lincoln’s example furnishes us of when moderation can be a profound error in a liberal democratic state. How not, in the process, to lose sight of how profoundly inimical extremism is, in “normal” political conditions, can be accomplished by understanding why Douglas was also a great, if tragically misguided, figure.

For penetrating writings on this, I recommend:

1. Holmes, S. Gag Rules or the Politics of Omission, in Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy 202-235 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago; 1995)

2. Jaffa, H.V. Crisis of the house divided; an interpretation of the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Edn. 1st. (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y.: 1959).

3. Wills, G. Lincoln at Gettysburg : the words that remade America. (Simon & Schuster, New York; 1992).


Steve Krizman December 6, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Great post. Stevens takes his pragmatism to such an extreme — arguing that even the clearly inferior men on the other side of the aisle are equal under the law — that he proves the truth of his True North.


Elizabeth May 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm

I appreciate your comments on this powerful scene in Lincoln. I wanted to comment that it was Stevens’ radicial position that “all men are created equal” in the first place that allowed the compromise of “under the law” to be enough to allow the vote to pass. In leadership, we sometimes need the person who insists on the outer-limit position to force us all further out of our comfort zone than we would’ve otherwise gone.


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