This speech, given nearly a quarter century before Lincoln would become president of the United States, is interesting in the sense that it exemplifies many of the things about Lincoln that will catapult him into the national spotlight later on. That is to say, Lincoln's letters, speeches and other documents always reflected his sense of humor, and his sense of human dignity, as well as his thoughtful use of logic and reason, acknowledgement of human spirituality, respect for the law, and knowledge of the Bible. His rhetoric was often peppered with Biblical and literary allusions, and while he was a shrewd politician, character always informed his words to a much greater extent than politics. As always, his voice in the discussion of temperance was a voice of reason and moderation rather than personal attack and division, a precursor to the stunning (to some) plans he would later articulate to simply send all the soldiers, even the Confederates, home to their families at the conclusion of the Civil War: "With malice toward none, with charity toward all", he would say before his death ended his plans for a merciful Reconstruction of the North and South.
Lincoln’s speech (delivered on Washington’s birthday, 1842) presents his views on the nature of temperance. Interestingly, he did not mention George Washington until the end of the speech. He enumerates the causes of the temperance movement’s past failures to explain the success of the Washington Temperance Society. He also expresses his views on other topics in rhetoric that can be described as youthful, exuberant, and overblown. Leadership was entrusted to the wrong people, namely preachers, lawyers, and “hired agents” who are distant from the people and who had a vested interest in the issue. The measures they supported were not likely to win adherents. Lincoln explores the reasons why, thereby touching on human nature. The speakers of the other movements denounced the failure of their listeners (impolitic) and they failed to account for public opinion (unjust). In their approach, there is an assumption that the drunkard is incorrigible. Lincoln, holding the opposite view, shows us his optimism that people can change. He explains the success of the Washington Society by comparing it to other temperance approaches. One main reason he adduces is the use of reformed drunkards who can relate to the audience.
He argues that people who are not drunkards take a temperance pledge. He argues that joining provides social support for, and “peer pressure” on, the drinker. He addresses the idea of moral influence via the “influence of fashion.” He invokes religious imagery (and a quote from Ezekial) to strengthen his case. He enumerates the benefits of temperance, which he defines as the elimination of passion. He likens the temperance movement to the Revolution of 1776. He uses the idea, or image, of slavery (to alcohol). He broadens the idea of temperance to the promotion of political freedom through reason. He concludes his speech with a mention of George Washington.
The temperance movement was among the most prominent and influential movements that reflected a shift from colonial-era views on the use of spirits.