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...
(The entire section is 1,682 words.)