The last thing I needed was to read another Lincoln biography. But a Lincoln biography given to me by my brother Charles, continued to beckon from the bookshelf where I had placed it. One day curiosity got the better of me, and I picked it up. It was a hefty tome entitled, "Team of Rivals", by historian Doris Kerns Goodwin. Once I opened it I was trapped–I had to read it. I'm glad I did, as it was full of anecdotes and personal insights, that rendered the Lincoln legend a living, breathing man that I felt I could understand as well as know. This was the Lincoln who quoted from memory Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Burns, and who recommended to friends, various Bible passages as a means of problem-solving, and in facing with courage an uncertain future.
It has often been said that Lincoln was no ordinary politician, true enough, but the Lincoln who emerges in Ms Goodwin's biography is not only a profound political strategist and thinker, but a man who spoke with religious zeal–more pastor than politician–particularly when confronting the great evil of his day–slavery.
Lincoln's gift for public speaking developed over time, particularly while riding the legal circuit of southern Illinois. In speaking before juries over several years, Lincoln gradually learned the art of persuasive speaking. In his day and place, most people comprising juries were uneducated farmers and common townsfolk. These people may have been unsophisticated rustics, but they weren't stupid. Lincoln recognized this, and realized that the best way to reach them was not to talk down to them, nor take himself too seriously; that the key to winning a case was to keep it simple and to be direct, and above all to speak to them as his equal. The fact he had a gift for humor and telling amusing stories, proved helpful because it put jurors at ease, and allowed them to see him as one of them.
Always well prepared and friendly, he won case after case, and perhaps most important of all, learned to trust the wisdom of common people, that, when properly informed, they could be relied upon to do the right thing–whether serving on a jury, or casting a ballot on election day. When he entered politics, this proved to be a valuable advantage over his rivals, notably during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when he was up against a better-known, more experienced politician, the Senate incumbent candidate, Stephen A. Douglas.
Lincoln had earned the right to share the stage with a politician of Douglas' stature and reputation, with the so-called "House-Divided"speech. After that followed the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, that vaulted Lincoln from an unknown shrewd country lawyer, to a national leader, and a shot at becoming president.
Below are excerpts from eight speeches and two letters, which clarify his political views, while revealing his deep-rooted humanity. To my mind they read more like sermons than political treatises, indeed, I find Lincoln the president to be a more effective leader as Pastor-in-Chief, than as Commander-in-Chief.
1 - Letter to Joshua Speed (Aug 24, 1855) – (note: the Know-Nothings were a populist political party that held sway in mid-nineteenth century America). "I am not a Know-Nothing . . . How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in the degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control it will read 'all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no preference of loving liberty–to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
2 - Speech at the Republican State Convention, Springfield, Illinois (May 19, 1858) – "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved–but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all states, old as well as new, North as well as South."
3 – Speech at Edwardsville, Illinois (Sept 11, 1858) – "When you have succeeded in dehumanizing the Negro, when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out as in the darkness of the damned, are you sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you? What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyranny who rises among you."
4 – Reply, seventh and last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Alton, Illinois (October 15, 1858) – "That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles–right and wrong–throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other is the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is same spirit that says, 'You toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his of own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannic principle."
5 – Speech at Independence Hall, Philadelphia (Feb 22, 1861) – (as president- elect, on his trip to Washington D.C., Lincoln delivered seven speeches, the most profound of which was his last, given at Independence Hall). "I have never had a feeling politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. . . . I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of separation of the colonies from the motherland, but the sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. . . . I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it."
6 – First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861) – "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right, to dismember it.
"Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better hope in the world?
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of Union when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
7 – Second Annual Message to Congress (Dec 1, 1862) – "A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability.
"If there ever could be a proper time for mere catch arguments, that time surely is not now. In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity.
"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.
"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. This fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless."
8 – The Gettysburg Address (Nov 19, 1863) – (There's an irony in Lincoln being a wartime president, the very Abraham Lincoln who abhorred violence and could not stand the sight of blood. That he should preside over the bloodiest war in our nation's history is irony indeed. With the Gettysburg Address, he was attempting to make sense of the war, to find meaning in the ongoing violence and killing. What he decided was that once the war ended, the nation could never return to what it had been, that something good would have been gained. That, in short, is the meaning of the Gettysburg Address).
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
"But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate–we cannot consecrate–we cannot hallow–this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
9 – Letter to Mrs. Bixby (Nov 21, 1864) – (on the wall of Brasenose College, Oxford University, England, this letter of the "rail-splitter" president, hangs as "a model of purest English, rarely, if ever, surpassed." So say the academics who placed it there). "Dear Madam, I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of such a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."
Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln
10 – Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865) – "Fondly we do hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
(as I write this, Abraham Lincoln once again has been proclaimed by a group of noted historians to be our nation's greatest president).