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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Abraham Lincoln

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.

Lincoln’s rhetorical 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.
Elaine Sargent Apthorp
San Jose State University

In the Heath Anthology
Address at the Dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery (1863)
Second Inaugural Address (1863)

Other Works

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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.

Secondary Sources

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