| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Tom Lincoln, born to poverty, almost illiterate, and raised to the
mastery of a limited body of farming skills, struggled to squeeze, from a
succession of small farms in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, a livelihood for
his family. But his son Abraham, burdened with the gift of an extraordinary
intelligence, sensed nothing but weary futility in what seemed to him a
treadmill of squatting and moving on; and though his formal schooling was as
minimal as his father’s, Abraham was inspired to educate himself by the few
books that came his way and by the support of his sensitive and ambitious
mother and stepmother. From these resources and from his own native sensitivity
he gleaned that he ought to make his life, like the books he had cherished, a
story with a meaningful end.
To say that he
succeeded in this would be an understatement. At twenty-one he was on his own,
working as laborer, storekeeper, and postmaster in the small town of New Salem,
Illinois—and teaching himself the law; by his mid-twenties he was not only a
successful practicing lawyer but a member of the state legislature (in which he
served four terms); at thirty-eight he was elected to Congress; at fifty-two,
he was elected president of the United States; and by the time of his death by
assassination—only a few weeks after the inauguration of his second
presidential term—he had made of himself so extraordinary a statesman that his
end was all too painfully meaningful.
The ideals of the
Republic which were celebrated in the histories he read as a child instilled in
Lincoln the faith that, despite the poverty and squalor of his birth, he could
determine his own destiny, and that the Constitution of his country guaranteed
him the right to do so. Consequently he both revered the Constitution and
labored, in his legal and political career, to assure that the Constitution’s
guarantees extended as far in practice as they did in ideal. That these two
concerns were incompatible—that the compromise with slavery which was written
into the Constitution made the United States (as he was to describe it) “a
house divided against itself,” a union which could not honor the rights of its
southern states without making a mockery of its own Bill of
Rights—occurred to him only gradually: for though he was vocal in his
disapproval of slavery, throughout most of his political career he stood for
free soil in the new territories but not for Abolition. When he campaigned for
the presidency in 1860 his platform emphasized not the problem of slavery,
but the preservation of the Union, as his primary concern.
It seemed clear enough
that the new president was not the avenging angel of liberty the abolitionists
had waited for, but rather an adroit politician whose appearance of flexible
moderation made him tolerable to many though satisfactory to few: not the man
anyone really wanted, but the only man who could command a tentative majority
among the now bitterly divided population. He was quick and resourceful in
appeasing the conflicting interests of his constituents—as ready to paint
himself a defender of segregation as of universal liberty, where doing either
would persuade his audience to accept his vision of the Constitution.
Yet the hysterical
dread and outrage with which his opponents—both North and South—viewed his
candidacy, which caused them to brand him the “blackest” of the “black
Republicans,” and which caused seven southern states to secede from the Union
in response to his election in 1861, was not unfounded. Adherents of slavery
had good reason to fear him, for in Lincoln the worldly pragmatism that made
him a skillful manipulator of men was coupled with an extraordinary
intellectual independence. He had demonstrated in Congress his willingness to
jeopardize his own political future by taking an unpopular stand on principle,
once the reins of power were in his hands; and the stand he had taken then
indicated that as president he would be the enemy of slaveholders, despite his
protestations of moderation. During his presidency he was besieged as much by
the defenders of slavery as by its enemies, but in 1862, at a critically
unstable moment in the war, he cast the weight of his administration with
immediate emancipation of the slaves in the Confederate states, against the
wishes of what seemed an overwhelming majority of the people. In his efforts to
preserve the Union, he was willing to appease, and reluctant to offend, the
powerful adherents of slavery—a posture which dictated a number of
half-measures and dubious compromises. But the Union he envisioned was one in
which slavery—and all artificial perpetuation of inequality among men—should
have no lasting place.
posture shifted with the needs of the moment much as his policies did; but like
his policies, the language of Lincoln’s presidential speeches has about it a
ring of enlightened purposiveness which seems to reach beyond the merely strategic
dimension of rhetoric. In early speeches he employed the precise language and
humorous illustrative fables appropriate to an attorney arguing a case in law,
but in the later speeches—of which the selections offered here are the most
famous examples—he turned steadily toward the rhetoric of the Bible, both in
style and reference. This shift from the legal to the religious parallels
Lincoln’s shift from the legislative to the executive branches of government
and from a posture of legislative compromise to one of military force; his
Biblical rhetoric, which had characterized the speeches of abolitionists for
decades, appeals as they did to an authority that could not finally be found in
the Constitution, but which might be counted on to unite a politically divided
people under the banner of the Christianity they still shared.
The Address at the
Dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and the Second Inaugural
Address are remarkable, however, not for their employment of Biblical
cadence and reference but for the simplicity and clarity with which that
rhetoric is fused with the self-educated lawyer’s measured concern for justice
in the affairs of men. Two addresses were given on November 19, 1863, at the
dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg—site, only three months
before, of the bloodiest battle of the War—and both appealed to the
Christian sentiments of the fifteen thousand Americans who gathered for the
ceremonies: but it was Edward Everett’s two-hour paean to the forces of armed
righteousness which met the public standard for eloquence and piety. Lincoln’s
two-minute speech, over almost before the crowd could gather that the president
was speaking, seemed a failure—for it was concise and simple, barren of the
florid language which would demonstrate the speaker’s passionate response to
the occasion. The piece, however, like Lincoln himself, gained after a time the
regard of a people who (as Lincoln once jested) could be fooled some of the
time but not forever; and his little speech has gradually come to seem more
eloquent than any less restrained or more complex statement could have been.
The author seems to speak from a place above narrow rational selfinterest yet
below blind adherence to an extrarational authority, so that these pleas for unity
and support become reassertions of faith in the rational humanist principles on
which his precious, precarious Republic had been founded.
San Jose State
In the Heath Anthology
Address at the Dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery
Second Inaugural Address
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Abraham Research Site
Designed specifically for student research; offers biographical/historical information and a collection of images.
Inauguration: Abraham Lincoln's First
The electronic text of Lincoln's first inaugural address.
Lincoln / Net
Rich resource providing Lincoln's writing, speeches, and contextual information on the historical moment.
Lincoln's Speeches and Writings
Index including electronic texts of Lincoln's oral and written works.
The History Place Presents Abraham Lincoln
Project on Lincoln arranged as an annotated chronology with links to glossary entries and primary documents.
U.S. Civil War Center—Civil War Documents
Index of links to electronic texts on the Civil War; includes many texts by Lincoln.
Jacques Barzun, Lincoln the Literary Genius, 1960
Steven B. Oates, With Malice Toward None, 1978
Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meetings, 1982, 1987