Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1682

Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States and author of the Gettysburg Address, has come to be recognized as a creative speaker with an individual and appealing style. He had a perceptive sense of humor and an awareness of human dignity and of the tragedy which occurs with the...

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Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States and author of the Gettysburg Address, has come to be recognized as a creative speaker with an individual and appealing style. He had a perceptive sense of humor and an awareness of human dignity and of the tragedy which occurs with the loss of it. His arguments were logically respectable and responsive to the problems of his times. Although he always retained a directness of statement and feeling which reflected the conditions of his boyhood in Kentucky and Indiana, he was by no means a merely homespun speaker or writer; his poetic phrasing and imagery, Biblical allusions, and rhetorical devices all testify to the fact that he was a well-educated and intelligent man who could speak to any kind of audience in a manner and with the diction appropriate to the occasion.

But Lincoln was not perfect. If it is relevant to state the fact of his imperfection, the reason is that Lincoln’s compassion and understanding and his contribution to the creation of American democracy as we know it have so impressed his fellow citizens that sometimes romantic legends lead us to believe that he never spoke without winning assen and admiration from those whom he addressed. But since he was human and to err is human, and since he was sometimes called upon to speak when there was no great problem to resolve or attack, he was on occasion ineffective in what he said.

Once the legend of Lincoln’s perfection is dispelled, the fact of his greatness as a man, a President, and a speaker emerges. The Gettysburg Address of 1863 was no isolated phenomenon; the ideas, the sentiments, the clear eloquence had all been heard before, but never with such economy and depth.

“The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” one of the earliest of Lincoln’s speeches, was an address given to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838. Lincoln began by recalling the political and social legacy bequeathed the American people of the nineteenth century by their fathers, and he asked how the task of maintaining the liberties transmitted to them might best be performed. He argued that the danger of loss came not from abroad but only from Americans themselves: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Lincoln then referred to several violent instances of mob action and argued that such disregard for law could result in the loss of the legacy of freedom. Although the passion of revolution had helped Americans achieve their liberty, it was necessary to let reason and a reverence for law prevail.

In this early speech there is ample evidence of Lincoln’s power, a power partly literary and partly spiritual. The young speaker reflected his sense of his role, as a citizen, to transmit the American heritage. Like his contemporaries, he placed his faith in reason, law, the orderly processes of government, and a sense of human dignity; but he added to this conventional faith his own clear conviction and commitment, applying the principles of democracy to the immediate danger he found about him. His philosophy of government was conservative; he did not speak for abolition—but what he conserved were the principles needed in critical times. His character, not the particular strain of his politics, was already the most persuasive element in his addresses; the demands of the Presidency in a time of civil war were to realize the nobility of that character.

At the close of the Republican State Convention at Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858, Lincoln delivered an acceptance of the senatorial nomination. This speech marked the beginning of the campaign that was to involve him in the series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas. After referring to the increase in slavery agitation, Lincoln declared:In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed— “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—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.

Lincoln went on to discuss the Nebraska Bill, which allowed the people of any state or territory to determine whether slavery was to be allowed in their state or territory, the Dred Scott Decision, and the opinions of Senator Douglas. Lincoln maintained that Douglas cared nothing about halting the advance of slavery, and he implied that Douglas’ policy tended to divide the Union.

In the first Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, Douglas referred to Lincoln’s acceptance speech and quoted Lincoln’s remarks concerning the “house divided against itself.” He argued that the founders of the nation had believed it possible for the union to exist with both free and slave states, and he suggested that Lincoln could hardly disagree with such men as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton. He endorsed the Dred Scott Decision, declaring that if Lincoln’s opinions prevailed “black settlements” would “cover your prairies.” “I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent,” Douglas asserted, “instead of conferring it upon Negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.”

Lincoln replied by correcting a number of misrepresentations made by Senator Douglas, and in order to counter the charge that he was an abolitionist he quoted from a speech he had made at Peoria, Illinois, in 1854. Although he stated that he had no intention of introducing political and social equality between the white and the black races, he added that “notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Even when, for the sake of politics, Lincoln agreed with Douglas that the black man was not his equal, he qualified his admission: “I agree with Judge Douglas that he [the Negro] is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.” Then, although the “perhaps” made a world of difference, Lincoln closed that particular subject: “But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

Even now, more than a hundred years after the debates, the speeches by Douglas and Lincoln bring the living man before the imagination. Douglas is the clever, urbane debater; but Lincoln is at least as clever, and he has the words to reach all minds and to express sentiments which make up the American ideal. In debate, Lincoln was as relentless as his opponent in the attempt to win his points, but he was never vicious, even when he was not as candid as a man could be. His homely sense of humor remained an invaluable instrument in his bag of rhetorical devices. Immediately after considering Douglas’ charge that he was an abolitionist, Lincoln passed on to the question of whether he had ever been a grocery-keeper. He said, “I don’t know that it would be a great sin if I had been; but he is mistaken. Lincoln never kept a grocery anywhere in the world. It is true that Lincoln did work the latter part of one winter in a little still-house up at the head of a hollow.”

At Springfield, Illinois, in his last speech of the campaign of 1858, Lincoln repeated that he admitted the right of the South to reclaim its fugitives and that he denied the right of Congress to interfere with the states. He declared that he had found the campaign painful, particularly because former friends accused him of wishing to destroy the union. Then he concluded that some had charged him with ambition, but that he would gladly withdraw if he could be assured of “unyielding hostility” to the spread of slavery. The candor and intensity of this brief speech make it one of Lincoln’s most moving addresses.

Lincoln’s courage became most evident with his address at Cooper Union in New York on February 27, 1860. He took issue with Douglas’ claim that the authors of the Constitution understood the “question” as well as the men of his own day. He agreed with Douglas that the fathers of the Constitution understood the issue, but he disagreed with Douglas’ assertion that they sided with Douglas’ view that the Constitution forbids federal control of slavery. Lincoln argued strongly against any interpretation of the Constitution which would have permitted the extension of slavery to the Free States and the territories. He referred to the secessionist threat to destroy the union if a Republican president were elected, and he urged that the Republicans do their part to maintain peace. He concluded, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Later in the year, in May, Lincoln was nominated for the office of President by the Republican Party; although he had been defeated in his senatorial campaign against Douglas, his speeches had brought him into national prominence. In February, 1861, after having been elected to the Presidency in November of the preceding year, Lincoln said farewell to the people of Springfield, Illinois, with a few poignant sentences in which he asked for the assistance of “that Divine Being” who had attended Washington. The Civil War began in April.

Lincoln’s inaugural addresses, his message to Congress on July 4, 1861, and his annual messages to Congress presented the facts of the national crisis with clarity and compassion. The Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, brought all of Lincoln’s sincere idealism into focus and related it to the grief of a nation. His addresses will continue to remain a cherished part of the American heritage and a significant segment of the world’s literature.

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