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Letter Home, Spring 2009
Lincoln's Speeches: A Brilliant Political Mind at Work
Reading the speeches of Abraham Lincoln offers a window into the mind of a great leader and a serious political thinker, says Annapolis tutor George Russell, who since his graduate school days has pursued a compelling interest in our nation's 16th president.
The Cooper Union Address, the Second Inaugural Address, and "A House Divided" speech of 1858 each indicates in its particular way how Lincoln saw the institution of enslavement as a national rather than a sectional problem, and especially so, since the institution had the sanction of the law of the whole land.
Mr. Russell made his first serious study of the speeches in the years that he was teaching history as a graduate student, but he was immediately arrested by their political and philosophical depth. In the context of his interest in political philosophy, he pursued the examination of the works to better understand Lincoln's views on the American polity and how they compared to those of Jefferson, Madison, and other founders of the nation. In pursuit of his Lincoln studies, Mr. Russell was helped greatly when he held the National Endowment for the Humanities chair at St. John's from 2005-2007, which gave him release time to study Lincoln's speeches and prepare a lecture on the topic.
Lincoln repeatedly claims throughout his public life that his views on the American polity, especially regarding enslavement and government legislation over U.S. territories, was consistent with the views of the founders. One task for thinking is to show the ways in which his views harmonize with those of Madison and Jefferson; another task is to show how Lincoln's views differ from those of John C. Calhoun, a fierce proponent of slavery and states' rights. "Lincoln's political thought is always emerging in the context of quarrels about what the Constitution really means and what the founding really was about, not abstractly, but in the context of living and concrete political situations," says Russell.
"In Federalist 10, Madison, among other things, puts forward his understanding of the kinds of majorities you want and don't want," says Russell. Madison says a representative and reasonable government can control factions and guard against the tyranny of the majority. "Calhoun comes along in the 19th century with a different view of the union and the kinds of majorities that are proper to it. Since his understanding of majorities is in the service of trying to preserve [the slaveholder's] interest in entering the Union, it turns out to be much more conservative than what we find in Madison."
In framing his argument against slavery in his speeches, Lincoln revisits again and again his understanding of the intentions of the founders. "Lincoln is interesting because he argues that slavery is wrong not just by his own reasonable moral lights, but also by his American lights," says Russell. "Lincoln is also a great believer in the law, and he saw that the institution of slavery in the Southern states was legal. His solution was to show that the founders were not willing to allow slavery to spread and that by keeping it in the South, it would be kept on 'the course of its final extinction.'"
In The Cooper Union Address, Lincoln pointed out that a majority of the signers of the Constitution supported the Northwest Ordinance. His argument was that the federal government had the right to restrict slavery. In this way, Russell says, Lincoln showed "the founders knew that slavery was wrong and they set down as well as they could the conditions for change."
While The Cooper Union Address focuses in great part on the intentions of the founders regarding the spread of slavery, in the speech "Lincoln's moral conviction that slavery is wrong shines through." Lincoln's "A House Divided" speech shows "a very different Lincoln, a subtle and ironic politician," Russell says.
"I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free," Lincoln said. "I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
All too often Lincoln's supporters on the anti-slavery side thought his speech made too many concessions to slavery, while Lincoln's opponents in the South chafed at his principled opposition to slavery, even if he did concede its legality. Lincoln still tells both sides that the institution is wrong and that the institution is legal. "In taking that position, he intends to do what he can to end it, while he carves out a kind of middle ground," Mr. Russell says. "That's why he had so many enemies on all sides."
In his brief and eloquent Second Inaugural Address, "Lincoln is trying to treat the country as a union. He says that the war belongs to all of us," Mr. Russell says. "Many readers mistakenly think that Lincoln is merely being rhetorical in this speech and that he knows the South shoulders 'the blame.' But Lincoln was keenly aware that the war could not have been fought under a commitment to free the enslaved people. In 1861 the North, as well as the South, was all too willing to let slavery go on, and Lincoln knew it."
Lincoln's major speeches remain relevant for readers today for what they teach us about our history and our founding documents. While the rhetoric is rich in language and imagery, underlying the beautiful words is Lincoln's conviction that what he believed was indeed the best course for the country.
Mr. Russell suggests these books for further reading:
Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 50th Anniversary Edition by Harry V. Jaffa; A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, also by Jaffa; Team of Rivals, D.K. Goodwin; and Lincoln at Peoria, L.E. Lehrman.