Abraham Lincoln’s Advice to Voters Unhappy with this Election: Suck it Up.


The Lesser of Two Evils

In the early fall of 1848,  a little-known congressman from the frontier of Illinois set off to Massachusetts to address fellow members of his political party, the Whigs.

His name was Abraham Lincoln.

To put Lincoln’s trip in context, it’s important to remember that the issue dominating the 1848 presidential election was the expansion of slavery into the new territory won in the Mexican War. The Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, was in favor of extending slavery to these new territories. The stance of the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, was less clear, though it was generally assumed he would oppose the expansion.

This assumption was not enough, however, for the strongly anti-expansion Massachusetts Whigs. Taylor was a slaveholder and his refusal to definitively reject expansion made him, in their eyes, a sub-optimal presidential candidate — so they refused to support his nomination, and, during the summer of 1848, became riled up by Charles Sumner, a particularly well-spoken and energized young man who was pushing his fellow party members to vote instead for a dark horse third party candidate, Martin Van Buren, who was emphatically against slavery.

Here’s Sumner talking to the Whigs in Worcester in June, 1848:

“I hear the old saw that ‘we must take the least of two evils’…for myself, if two evils are presented to me, I will take neither.”

This should sound familiar.

Many voters in our current election, on both the left and the right, are attracted to Sumner’s argument. Spurned Bernie Sanders supporters, for example, are looking to Stein as a way to protest attempts to push them into “settling” for the less inspiring Clinton, while disgusted Republicans, uneasy with Trump’s pliable relationship with truth and proto-fascist tendencies, are proudly declaring their intent to write-in a more favored candidate on the ballot.

Sumner would have applauded this commitment to one’s “duty” to do the right thing no matter what.

But not Abraham Lincoln.

He was sent to Massachusetts to push back against Sumner. As William Lee Miller summarizes in his exceptional book, Lincoln’s Virtues, the young Illinois congressmen came to preach an “ethic of consequences.”

Absent of divine revelation, Lincoln argued to the Massachusetts Whigs, the only responsible way to determine your “duty” as a voter is to leverage your “most intelligent judgment of the consequences.”

With respect to the 1848 election, Lincoln argued that votes for Van Buren would take away votes from Taylor and help ensure the election of Cass. That is, the ethical consequence of rejecting Sumner’s “two evils” would be to expand slavery — and to Lincoln, this couldn’t possibly be the right ethical decision for anti-slave voters, regardless of their personal feelings about Taylor.

As Miller paraphrases, Lincoln charges that we need to “discover our duty [through careful weighing of consequences], not [assume] duty to be self-defining, [or] to be taken for granted as revealed.”

I think, however, that Lincoln’s message to the Massachusetts Whigs can be condensed to something even more pithy: suck it up and get over yourself.

My reading of Lincoln (filtered through Miller) is that he found it immorally indulgent to use the voting both as a place to vent frustrations, or make a statement of principles, or send a message to your opponents.

While Sumner was consumed with self-righteousness, Lincoln was worried instead about the messy but necessary business of democracy: figuring out the option that gives the institutions of our fragile republic the best possible chance to keep functioning.

As we face an historically important election tomorrow, this message seemed particularly relevant.


I don’t normally post about politics because this is not a blog about politics. Last night, however, I was having a hard time sleeping and was up late re-reading Miller’s book. This was the chapter I opened to. It seemed providential given tomorrow’s election: so I thought it worth a post. Later this week we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming. 

33 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln’s Advice to Voters Unhappy with this Election: Suck it Up.”

  1. This post’s premise—that to vote third party is somehow to spoil the chances of Hillary winning—is valid only in swing states. We do not elect a president through the popular vote and therefore all votes do not count equally; our votes are mediated by the electoral college. Voting third-party in a consistently blue state is not the same as voting third-party in a swing state.

    This post calls for political pragmatism, a call with which I agree. The pragmatic choice for me, as a blue stater opposed to both the fascistic demagogue and the neoliberal hawk, is to vote for a candidate who more effectively represents my views, since this small act of dissent will at least be registered in the popular vote. My electoral representative will go to Hillary regardless. Pragmatism does not always involve taking the path of least resistance; Honest Abe can vouch for that.

    • It’s possible Lincoln would agree with you. Back in 1848, Mass was a swing state for the presidential election (because it was so anti-slavery), so his argument to the Mass Whigs really did have to do with spoiling

  2. Wanted to leave a small comment to say only Cal could pull of carefully reasoned, expert cited post about such a heated election the day before said election…and not have it be incendiary. Well done. 🙂

    (Although I’m only the 3rd comment so let’s see).

    • Ditto – as a long-time reader, I knew Cal’s response would be worth reading, even though I’m sick of the elections. As always, his advice is thoughtful, sensible, and a bit uncomfortable (in a good, stretching way).

  3. Cal – This is not entirely consistent with the comments you made at the end of your recent podcast on the Radio Free show. At the end of that podcast, you discussed, albeit in a different context, the virtues of going back to first principles and designing your life and decisions from the ground up based on those principles – and if you end up out on a limb alone, so be it.

    Doesn’t that philosophy also apply to presidential voting – I.e., making a principled choice to reject the two flawed candidates and choose an independent if that’s where your principles take you?

    • My understanding of Lincoln’s comments to the Massachusetts Whigs is that first principles were what you used to judge which consequences were better than others (in fact, I think he might have even used the exact phrase “first principles” in this discussion). If his principles led him to the decision that slavery was wrong, then he felt ethically compelled to support Taylor as this choice would have the largest impact on slavery, regardless of what he thought of Taylor as a person.

      What he seemed to be discounting as self-indulgent was making a demonstration of your principles that didn’t actually affect much change in accordance to those principles. Then again, he’s pretty complicated…so take this all with a big, Lincoln scholarship-sized grain of salt.

  4. Good answer. Kudos.
    Also, loved your riff at the end of that podcast on first principles.

    Separately you said something on that Podcast about Lincoln specifically that was hard to understand in the recording – some kind of decision making. In any case, maybe worth covering in a future blog post.

  5. Thank you Cal for sharing your thoughts and Abe Lincoln’s message.

    Even if I come from a family of Dems, and myself, I have always voted blue, this time “we suck it up” and vote for Trump.

  6. Thank you for this timely and thoughtful post. This election has been kept me awake at night a few times too. I’ve struggled with comprehending the “protest voters” logic. Anyway kudos for sharing.

  7. This is one of the best posts of this blog, not for its good or correct message, but for its illumination of how truth itself has been corrupted, then lost sight of, by us all due to ambiguity. For a person of knowledge, the author should remain mindful that knowledge itself represents mere majority agreement and that truth is so very thinly veiled.

  8. Trump 2016!!! (from an immigrant)

    Completely agree with your analysis, Cal. Folks get out there and vote for your candidate – whoever he or she may be.

  9. There are ways of setting up an election where you can avoid this problem…

    e.g. The alternative vote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y3jE3B8HsE

    Under this system left wing folks who dislike Hilary but dislike Trump more can choose Bernie as their 1st choice, Hilary as 2nd and Trump as 3rd.

    If Bernie comes last, he’s eliminated, their vote goes to Hilary and she stops Trump winning. They got to vote for who they wanted and they stopped Trump getting in.

  10. I really wish you wouldn’t have ruined your BLOG for me. You could have written about what the first Republican President said and did (i.e. what kept you up last night), without the obvious slat towards your political beliefs (how felicitous that you reveal yourself as a leftist given that you are an academic). If you really think the above is anything other than a call by you for fellow Sanders Socialists or should I just say “fellow travelers” to go out and vote for Hillary, then I would carefully examine this quote from your blog for its obvious lack of balance: “Spurned Bernie Sanders supporters, for example, are looking to Stein as a way to protest attempts to push them into “settling” for the less inspiring Clinton, while DISGUSTED Republicans, uneasy with Trump’s PLIABLE RELATIONSHIP WITH TRUTH and PROTO-FASCIST TENDENCIES” (caps added by me). Yeah that is EXACTLY what we “uneducated white male” (despite my having two degrees, a lifetime of reading economics and political/philosophical history, 35 years as an executive in the software industry including 6 CEO positions, that is what the press characterizes me as) Republicans believe who would rather have someone else to vote for really think; that Trump has “photo-fascist tendencies”. Hillary on the other hand just gets a pass in your blog by saying she is “less inspiring” than Bernie Sanders. No similar malevolence is directed towards her, you could have mentioned the real reason Democrats are unenthused with voting for her. Like the fact that she is a “congenital liar” (said by William Safire of the New York Times 20 years ago) my personal favorite lie of hers BTW is: “wipe, you mean like with a cloth”, almost is up there with her husbands “depends on what the meaning of is, is”; really hard to make that kind of political theater up. Or the fact that she and her family built a 9 figure pile of wealth off of politics and faux charity, two evils that I personally do not understand how anyone can overlook. Well I guess we know where from which you come now! I will take all you say with a grain of salt from here on!

    • Hi Jeff,

      You are allowed to interpret as you will, but please consider that Cal was making these statements from the point of view of the groups mentioned: Bernie Sanders supporters characterize Hillary Clinton as “less inspiring” and sections of Republicans characterize Donald Trump as having a “pliable relationship with truth and proto-fascist tendencies.” Both are valid interpretations of the respective candidates from those camps.

      Nonetheless, even if you interpret Cal to be an ardent Clinton supporter, please consider: Why should differing political views hamper our discussions with one another? I don’t question my accountant’s skills based on their religious practice, my mechanic’s on the grounds of politics, or my doctor’s on sexuality, and I doubt you do, either. To have to navigate society to avoid rubbing shoulders with citizens with differing politics is a stressful minefield.

      And, as is equally your right, feel at liberty to disregard all of this comment.

      Cheers from a fellow American.

    • Well said, Jeff. While I find a lot of the earlier posts on this blog about productivity and college life valuable, I think Cal Newport is out of touch with the reality of the social dynamics of this country as well as the lives of his intended audience. After reading this post I won’t keep up with this blog anymore. I just can’t take any Clinton supporter seriously. For me it’s not even about the scandals. It’s her unreasonable position on open borders and the anti-police stance taken by the left. And don’t even get me started on Bernie Sanders. I appreciate his taking on Wall St. but almost none of his policy objectives (like free public college education and Medicare for everyone) are realistic.

      BTW, I have a BS, MS, and JD, all from top 5 schools in the US, all from very liberal-leaning institutions in the Northeast, one of which is in Cambridge, MA. Like you, I’m an avid reader of political philosophy. I’m an immigrant from a country Mr. Trump has often blamed for many of America’s problems. And I enthusiastically voted for Trump. I hope my liberal friends would get out of their bubble and take a hard look at reality so that they might understand why people like me would vote for Trump (and Republicans in general).

      • How could you demand rationality when your position of not taking seriously any Clinton supporter is, at first glance, just irrational? You’re judging a person before even hearing arguments: that’s irrational. You may have strong and valid points to favor your candidate, and from your perspective and system of values they are right and “trump” the reasons for choosing the alternative. However, it does not make every person that disagrees with you irrational. Their framework of reference may be different and they may have other priorities in mind. I think Carl tried to make the message as neutral as possible, but that is an impossible endeavor specially when discussing politics.

        • First of all, I’m sure Cal would appreciate it if you stopped referring to him as “Carl.” Second of all, just because someone has a position doesn’t mean it’s rational. For example, just because you entitled to say the Earth is a cube doesn’t mean I have to consider your opinion rational. Similarly, just because you think killing innocent people is ok doesn’t mean I have to consider it rational, and actually it’s pretty good grounds for discrediting some of the other things you say. “Carl” did not stake out a neutral position. Not only is his position biased on the Clinton/Trump choice, his position is also biased on Clinton/Stein. It is no less legitimate to say that Jill Stein would’ve won had she gotten all the Clinton votes than to say that Clinton would’ve won had she gotten all the Stein votes. Who is “Carl” or you or even Abraham Lincoln to say a particular choice is more “pragmatic?” Why can’t Jill Stein tell the Democrats to “suck it up” and vote for Stein? Stein would’ve won Florida and potentially more electoral college votes than Trump had she gotten all the Clinton votes.

      • Mark,

        I definitely am in the same boat with you on your thoughts on the “lesser or two evils” as well as principles as well as understanding the context: swing state vs state that isn’t.

        For me Clinton was the only truly deplorable candidate. I felt you knew without a doubt that is what you’re getting. Trump — didn’t and don’t like him. But he could be good, in fact, he’s the total element of surprise. I have faith in our constitution to handle those kind of outliers and temper really bad (and unfortunately) really good actions of our Presidents.


        I’d like to network with you both — if possible. I consider myself, even at age 35, new to politics. I’m also a software engineer. I find the ‘contradictions’ to status quo echo chamber (both Left & Right echo chambers) to be the most interesting and often the most intelligent. If forced to show my hand and pick a ‘label’ — I utterly despise them — I would most closely consider myself to have landed in the Kennedy/Reagan Democrat or the Libertarian Republican — both as best I can understand them.

        But I’m most interested in a continued search to find good people and materials to have honest discussions about — even if they are mostly reading the same materials with a few comments.

  11. I’m happy to be alive on this day. What a moment in our history. I hope the loved ones we’ve lost can see what we’ve accomplished. Together we stand strong. God bless America.
    For the people that plans on moving out of the country if he’s elected lol y’all better start packing because now he’s our president.

  12. Thanks Carl for your post. It takes certain value to post something about this election, specially when you may potentially lose dissatisfied and offended readers. I’m not sure I agree completely with the Thesis, but certainly appreciate your concern about the country that made you lose sleep, stay up and write this nice post.

  13. Cal, thanks for the post. Regardless of where we fall in the political spectrum, I hope that we can all agree (whatever our feelings about the candidates) that the electoral process is working as designed and despite our differences, that we are Americans first and that change can be decided through thoughtful discussions and within the process as designed, even if we end up agreeing to disagree. Hopefully we don’t let our irrational emotions lead the way…

  14. *…the young Illinois congressmen came to preach an “ethic of consequences” *
    Ronald Reagan was also from Illinois too.. Is this statement in any way of double standards?
    Well I guess so. >.__.<

  15. Abraham Lincoln was my idle. I have read all his books. But here, as you have described this.. I have to agree with that also. Thanks for your efforts for sharing such a good knowledge to us.

  16. I hope people like Abraham existed in my country because we need solid reform too. Corruption destroys not just the government or public institutions but also the faith in these things. Leaders like Lincoln fought their entire life to create a working environment in America and still they are working great.

  17. Fine way of telling, and pleasant post. Nice info! Thanks a lot for sharing it, that’s truly has added a lot to our knowledge about this topic. Have a more successful day. Amazing write-up, always find something interesting.


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