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is the series of speeches made between 1854 and 1865, in which
he developed his arguments against the extension of slavery, for
the preservation of the Union and in favor of emancipation.
The most familiar of these are the powerful replies to Douglas
in 1858, but they are by no means all which are worth attention.
The speech made in 1856, when he publicly severed his con-
nection with the old Whig party and joined the newly founded
Republican organization, is one of the most vigorous and elo-
quent he ever delivered. It is doubtful if any speech of his


whole career produced such an extraordinary effect. So moved
were his audience that the very reporters forgot to take notes,
and it was supposed until recently that no notes of it had been
preserved. It thus became known all over Illinois as Lincoln's
" Lost Speech." It is only within a few years that a report of
this speech has been found.

It is doubtful if any one who did not live through the exciting
decade before the war, or who has not made some special study
of Lincoln's life, realizes the effect of these speeches. They really
introduced him to the nation. Before that he had been an un-
known man. Even when he began to debate with Douglas in
1858 he was so little known and appreciated that his friends in
Illinois were afraid of a fiasco. They could not believe that this
great, gaunt, friendly man, with his simple ways and his modest
air, could match the most brilliant and popular orator of the day.
But as the debate went on, it became clear to them that Lin-
coln was the stronger. They began to ask each other if it was
possible that Lincoln, whom they had known all their lives, with
whom they rode the circuit, told stories, and played practical
jokes, could be a great man. They began to receive letters from
the East, " Who is this Lincoln ? " " Do you realize," wrote one
great man of the day to the chairman of the Republican com-
mittee, "that no greater speeches on public questions have been
made in the history of our country, that his knowledge of the
question is profound, his logic unanswerable, his style inimi-
table ? " Before the campaign was over, his friends all made
up their minds that Lincoln was, in. fact, a great man.

There was so strong an interest in him in the East, awakened
by the debates with Douglas, that he was invited to speak at
Cooper Union, the greatest compliment that could be paid to
a public speaker in that day.

Mr. Lincoln's audience was a notable one even for New
York. It included William Cullen Bryant, who introduced him,
Horace Greeley, David Dudley Field, and many more well-known


men of the day. It is doubtful if even Lincoln's best friends
did not fear that his queer manner and quaint diction might
amuse people so much that they would fail to catch the weight
of his logic. But to their surprise there was universal enthu-
siasm over the intellectual and literary quality of the address.
Where has this man learned his logic and his English ? the
audience asked. The question was a proper one, for these
antislavery speeches of Lincoln are one of the greatest intellec-
tual feats as well as one of the most distinguished literary per-
formances any American has achieved. To begin with, the
man was saturated with his subject, — the very essential of
any great literary performance. He had studied it, handled it,
lived with it, until when he came to present it he constructed
an argument which was practically flawless. He was like a
master builder putting up the framework of a great building.
Every timber fits, every nail goes into the exact spot where it
is needed, and no useless nail is driven. It is a strong, well-
proportioned, sound framework. Now the flawless argument
is the very life of a piece of literature, for it is that which
makes the appeal to the intellect. Let the argument be incom-
plete, shifty, interlaid with shams or tricks, and the intellect will
not give its complete assent. The thing is not " convincing,"
we say to-day. Now Lincoln was always convincing in his anti-
slavery addresses and letters. So sound was he that no trick
of oratory, no subtility of argument, no brutality of attack on
Douglas's part could surprise him in the debates. His later
work was equally strong in its logic.

Had not Lincoln worked as steadily and as hard on his ex-
pression as he did on his argument, the effect of his anti-
slavery speeches and letters would have been less immediate
and less general. But he had constant thought of his form. He
wanted to be " clear," he said. Unless he could be easily un-
derstood he kne^v he could not easily persuade, and it was for
this he struggled throughout his public life, with the result that


a style more lucid than that which he had achieved before his
death is scarcely conceivable. I doubt if it was the supreme
elegance of clear and simple forms of expression which caused
Lincoln to cultivate this style, though unquestionably he had an
instinctive feeling for the simple expression. He was rather
driven to it by what was in him an intellectual necessity. He
had a mind which was never quiet until it had solved to its own
satisfaction the questions with which it struggled. Even in his
boyhood days his companions noticed that he constantly was
searching for the reason of things and that he " explained so
clearly." To a friend who asked him once how he had achieved
his pure style he said : '' When a mere child, I used to get
irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not
understand. I do not think that I ever got angry at anything
else in my life ; but that always disturbed my temper, and has
ever since. I can remember going to my little bedroom, after
hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and
spending no small part of the night walking up and down,
trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of
their, to me, dark sayings.

" I could not sleep when I got on such a hunt for an idea
until I had caught it ; and when I thought I had got it, I was
not satisfied until I had put it in a language plain enough, as I
thought, for any boy to comprehend. This was a kind of a pas-
sion with me, and it has stuck by me ; for I am never easy
now, when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it
north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded
it west."

This is exactly what he did in his public speeches and letters.
When he had found what seemed to him the truth of a subject,
he tried to put it into a form so simple that nobody could
mistake his meaning. He stated his case with mathematical
exactness, in the fewest words possible, and always with the
simplest words. The result was that his statements of what


he considered the vital points in any great question are really
axioms. In the debates with Douglas, for example, his vital
arguments were condensed into a few phrases which appear
again and again. The most notable example is probably the
famous paragraph of his first speech in the campaign, where he
stated the position on which he intended to stand in the contest.

" ' 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."

But while the appeal to the intellect is so strong in Lincoln's
literary work, the appeal to the emotions is hardly less. He
could move the heart to its depths. Again and again in his
public career he poured forth his emotions in words so elevated,
in imagery so lofty, that the effect can only be compared to
that of some noble sacred poem. Take for instance, the clos-
ing paragraphs of the Second Inaugural :

'' Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this
mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God
wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's
two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk,
and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid
by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand
years ago, so still it must be said, ' The judgments of the Lord
are true and righteous altogether.'

" With malice toward none ; with charity for all ; with firm-
ness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive
on to finish the work we are in ; to bind up the nation's wounds ;
to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his
widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish
a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

The same lofty feeling and imagery characterize Lincoln's
Gettysburg speech. In this speech, universally acknowledged


to be one of the most perfect bits of English prose ever written,
we have Lincoln's clearness of expression admirably illustrated,
while the sympathetic charm which pervades it thrills the heart
to-day as deeply as it did forty years ago.

But Lincoln's English has something in it besides its clear-
ness and its loftiness. It has a delightful original flavor, dis-
tinctive and natural, untainted by conventional culture, which
having once caught you always recognize. Tn no particular is
this originality more conspicuous than in the quaint figures of
speech with which he illustrates his meaning. It was the fash-
ion of his time to seek metaphors and other embellishments in
the classics. " He never went among the ancients for figures,"
he used to say. Instead he drew them from his own experi-
ence. That experience had been humble enough, but it yielded
in his hands a fruitful crop of powerful illustrations. Some of
the most typical of these occur in his dispatches to officers dur-
ing the war. Such was his dispatch to Hooker in June, 1863.
Fearing that Hooker might cross to the south of the Rappa-
hannock and give Lee a chance to get behind the Federals, he
wrote, " I would not take any risk of being entangled up on
the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be
torn by dogs front and rear without a fair chance to gore one
way or kick the other." Equally pertinent was his message
sent a few days later to the same general : " If the head of
Lee's army is at Martinsburg, and the tail of it on the plank
road between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal
must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him ? " —
and nothing could have been better than his advice to Grant
in 1864, — ^' Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke
as much as possible."

Lincoln's private letters are all marked by this distinctive
personal style. There have been published a series of letters to
a stepbrother who must have been a shiftless fellow, which are
as good examples of well-put common sense as anything Poor


Richard himself ever gave us. His letter to General Hooker in
January, 1863, when the command of the Army of the Potomac
was given into his charge, is a perfect example of. the wise and
kindly, yet firm, writing which Lincoln could employ when he
thought best.

It is not difficult to see now as we study Lincoln's life that his
mastery of expression was of incalculable value in dealing with
the terrible problems of a Civil War President. For instance,
his aptness in illustrating his meaning by stories and figures
solved many a problem for the country. At first men com-
plained at what they called his triviality, his buffonery. What
right had the President of the United States to tell stories and
laugh when the country was at war ? Yet gradually the dis-
cerning began to see that every one of his stories settled a
question. Frequently, when the Cabinet was perplexed and
fearful, it was one of Lincoln's stories which broke its tense,
irritable mood, clearing up doubt and torment as a shower
clears the hot overburdened air. Again and again, commis-
sions of good but narrow men came to him to present a theory
which, if adopted, they were sure would alone end the war, free
the slave, satisfy the South, and restore happiness. The Presi-
dent simply told them a story and they filed out without a word,
the theory shattered in their hands. These stories were not
classic. They were not drawn from literature or history ; fre-
quently they were coarse in grain. They came straight from
raw human life as Lincoln had observed it, were full of humor,
not unlike that of Rabelais, and of homely pioneer picturesque-
ness ; but they were profound in their philosophy and truth-
fulness, and no argument he or any other could have advanced
would have had their convincing force.

The source of his inexhaustible supply of stories was always
a mystery to his associates. Did he invent them ? If not, where
did he get them ? The greater majority no doubt dated back to
his early life in Illinois when, as a postmaster and a surveyor,


and later as an itinerant lawyer and a member of the Illinois
State Assembly, he met constantly large numbers of quaint and
original people, and when he was thrown much with a class of
men who, for lack of other amusements, entertained one another
with stories. A new story in a community like that in which
Lincoln spent his earlier manhood has an importance not unlike
that of a new play or a new book in a town of to-day. Every-
body wants to hear it, and hearing it, everybody discusses it
and passes judgment on it. In Springfield, where Lincoln lived
at this period, nobody was more eager than he to hear each
man's new stories. Let one of his friends go away for a trip,
and his first greeting on the man's return would be, " Any new
stories .^ " And if the answer was affirmative, everything must
wait until he heard them. If they pleased him, forthwith they
were added to his repertoire. He rarely told a story, however,
simply for the sake of telling it. To him it was an argument or
explanation, sometimes even an exhortation. And because he
told it simply to illustrate, he rarely told it twice alike. In order
to make it serve his purpose he was obliged to work it over,
dressing it in new colors and giving the characters new sur-
roundings, so as to make them more suitable to his immediate
object. It thus happens that there can hardly be said to be an
original version of a " Lincoln story." For example, the story
of Sykes's dog is well known to most of us. Sykes owned an
ill-favored cur to which he was devoted but which, because of its
ugly looks and its propensity for worrying inoffensive pedestrians,
was heartily despised by his friends. One day a few desperate
individuals induced Sykes's dog to swallow a piece of meat in
which a charge of gunpowder with fuse attached was concealed.
The meat was no sooner down than the fuse was lighted and
the dog was scattered over the road. When Sykes came up and
saw the situation he made a feeble effort to collect the pieces,
but soon gave it up, remarking sorrowfully that he guessed that
dog's days of usefulness were ended. After the capture of


Vicksburg a delegation waited on Mr. Lincoln complaining be-
cause Grant had paroled Pemberton's army. Pemberton, they
said, would soon have the men together again. Mr. Lincoln did
not attempt to argue with them. He simply told them the story
of Sykes's dog, remarking, as he ended, that he guessed Pember-
ton's army was in about the same condition as the dog. He
told the same story on other occasions when delegations came
to him to criticize the paroling of Confederate troops. Each
time, if we believe his auditors, the story had its peculiar color.
Thus there were several authentic versions of the one story.

Match a highly disciplined intellect with an equally disciplined
moral sense and you have conduct of the highest order, and
that is what we find in Abraham Lincoln. He could do more
than solve problems, he could fit his conduct to the solution.
And this moral discipline was as much the result of training
from boyhood as his intellectual discipline. He had a keen notion
of right and wrong as a boy, and was willing to fight for what
he believed right ; although he was by no means a fighting boy.
On the contrary, he was peaceable and companionable, loving
games, tests of strength, talk, debates, jokes, — jokes so rough
that they might often be called horseplay.

All the stories left us of his early life, however, show that
while he would not fight for the sake of fighting, he did not
hesitate to show his power where it was a case of injustice.
There is a story of his defeat of the leader of a gang of bad
boys in the neighborhood of his early home in Sangamon
County, which may be regarded as typical of his attitude. His
thrashing of the leader of the Clary's Grove gang brought
him great honor in the community, and certainly made for the
future order and peace of the neighborhood.

He not only had a contempt for the bully, but sympathy with
the weak. So far as we know, Lincoln's first active sympathy
with the condition of the negro came from a visit to a slave
market, in New Orleans. All that he saw in his youth of the


outside world came from an occasional trip on a flatboat down
the Mississippi River to New Orleans. There is no doubt that
these trips were a real factor in the education of this wide-
awake boy. It was on one of these trips that he visited a slave
market, and his impressions were so strong that there is reason
to believe that he often referred to the experience in discussing
the slave question in after years. Thus his sympathies had been
early stirred on the question ; so that when the time came that
he had an opportunity to express himself, as it did first in
1837, he was the quicker to do it. He not only had an intel-
lectual conviction that slavery was wrong, but he had the back-
ing of his emotions. Nevertheless, it must have taken a great
deal of courage to sign a public protest against the institution
as early as he did. He was only twenty-eight years of age and
a member of the Illinois legislature. Resolutions had been
brought up in the assembly disapproving of the formation of
abolition societies, declaring that the right of property in slaves
was sacred, and that the general government could not fairly
abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent
of the citizens of the District. Lincoln and one of his fellow
representatives were the only members of the body to protest
against these resolutions. It is not the first proof that we have
that he was already courageous enough to fit his conduct to
his convictions, but it is certainly the most decisive. From this
time his political courage and consistency showed itself in many
different ways. He was in Congress when the Mexican War
broke out ; and his condemnation of the course of the United
States towards Mexico in this unjust and unnecessary war,
shows what kind of material he was made of. He had to sub-
mit to very severe criticism, even from many of his best friends
in Illinois, for his course, but it only made him the more effec-
tive in his opposition.

Lincoln's moral courage in public life had a severe test in the
'50's when the slave question became acute. He had practically


given up politics when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise
aroused him as nothing before ever had. He immediately began
to discuss the question in public and private. And very early in
these discussions, he came to the conclusion which later became
the backbone of his great debate with Douglas : that the country
could not exist half slave and half free ; that it must be all one
thing, or all the other. It was a most unpopular doctrine in his
own party, the Whig, and he found himself lined up with a few
bolting Whigs and Democrats, the nucleus which, in 1856,
formed itself into the Republican Party. Ardent Whig that he
had been, the break was a serious matter to Mr. Lincoln ; and
he did not make it until he was convinced it was only through a
new organization that the advance of slavery could be stopped.
Perhaps no more impressive proof of Lincoln's fidelity to
principle is found in his whole career than his refusal, in his
debate with Douglas, to allow his opponent to manipulate his
argument in such a way that it would mean one thing in the
North and another thing in the South. Mr. Lincoln insisted on
asking questions of Douglas which made it possible for the
latter to satisfy the people of Illinois that he was sound on the
slavery question. The result was that he was elected, Lincoln
defeated. But these answers which satisfied Illinois dissatisfied
the South. They were in contradiction with what Douglas had
persuaded the South that he believed. Lincoln showed the
country that Douglas " was carrying water on both shoulders."
Lincoln realized what he was doing, but he persisted in asking
the questions which helped his own defeat, because he was
determined to do his part in making the people of the country
understand the question at issue. That is, he held it of more
importance that the country should be clear in its views and
sound in its conclusions, than that he should be elected, or
that his party be successful. He showed, in fact, the highest
order of political morality. And that such political morality is
in the long run the best of policies, the fact of his nomination


and election to the presidency, two years later, is good enough

There is no episode in Mr. Lincoln's administration as Presi-
dent of the United States which is better evidence of his funda-
mental sense of justice than his efforts, early in the war, to
bring about what is called compensated emancipation ; that is, to
persuade Congress to buy and free the slaves of the Southern
states. He saw very clearly that emancipation would probably
be the result of the war to save the Union. He saw that it
might be necessary as a war measure. He revolted against the
idea of confiscating the property of the South, though that prop-
erty might be in men. Therefore he worked out the plan of
buying the blacks. I doubt if there was any experience of
his career as President of the United States which gave him
greater regret than the failure of this measure. The whole
episode is an excellent example of the humanity and sense of
justice which underlay all of his public policy, — qualities, which,
as I have said, had their foundation in his youth, and which
were as logical an outcome of the moral training which he gave
himself as his power of logical thought and of clear and elo-
quent expression w^ere the results of his intellectual training.

Ida M. Tarbell






(Extract from first public address, March i, 1832. Age, 23 years)

... It appears that the practice of loaning money at exor-
bitant rates of interest has already been opened as a field for
discussion ; so I suppose I may enter upon it without claiming
the honor, or risking the danger which may await its first
explorer. It seems as though we are never to have an end to 5
this baneful and corroding system, acting almost as prejudicially
to the general interests of the community as a direct tax of
several thousand dollars annually laid on each county for the
benefit of a few individuals only, unless there be a law made
fixing the limits of usury. A law for this purpose, I am of 10
opinion, may be made without materially injuring any class
of people. In cases of extreme necessity, there could always be
means found to cheat the law ; while in all other cases it would
have its intended effect. I would favor the passage of a law on
this subject which might not be very easily evaded. Let it be 15
such that the labor and difficulty of evading it could only be
justified in cases of greatest necessity.

Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any
plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as
the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged 20
in. That every man may receive at least a moderate education,
and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and
other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of
our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance,
even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages 25
and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the



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Online LibraryA LincolnSelections from the letters, speeches (Volume 2) → online text (page 2 of 13)