“Public sentiment is everything”

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In the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that “public sentiment is everything,” a necessary and sufficient condition of political persuasion. He used this principle both to discredit Stephen Douglas and to elicit support for his own program. He charged that Douglas’s statement that he “don’t care” whether slavery was voted down or voted up, was the means by which he would tranquilize the public to regard slavery as a matter of indifference, whereupon the Supreme Court would issue another Dred Scott decision, this one nationalizing slavery. Meanwhile, he insisted that if public opinion believed that slavery was on the way to ultimate extinction, it eventually would die out. Lincoln’s proclamation also was an ambryonic theory of public opinion, emphasizing the role of political advocates in “coaching” public sentiment. He held to an older concept that “public sentiment” was a normative property of a collective, not just an aggregate of individual opinions.


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