The Evolution of Lincoln's Thought in His Speeches
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most celebrated and popular Presidents in the history of the United States. Lincoln presided over the Presidency at a difficult time for the country, when the unity of the nation was at stake and the question of slavery deeply polarized the society into two. Lincoln was able to preserve the Union, but at a great cost which made him as controversial as he was popular. But it is uncontroversial among his contemporaries and the readers of his speeches today that the sixteenth President of the United States was a great orator, able to address a broad range of audience: rich and poor, literate and illiterate, freemen and slaves; and he possessed a rare skill of persuasion. Lincoln was able to address a divided nation with great care and measurement. He was reserved when he knew that his frankness could be damaging but he was also mercilessly candid when he thought that it was necessary. A careful reading of his classic speeches show that there are certain consistent trends that he followed throughout his pre-presidential and presidential careers, but his oratory tone also changed, moving from a greater emphasis on reason, intelligence, and the rule of law to a greater emphasis on God's judgment and the importance of morality.
Lincoln delivered one of his earliest political speeches at a Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, at the age of twenty eight. Lincoln was motivated by a mob incident involving a black man in St. Louis a few weeks before and his purpose was to make a persuasive speech, emphasizing the importance of the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln started his Lyceum Address by reminding the blessings of the American Independence and the glory of the Founding Fathers. This way of starting his speeches became a consistent trend that he usually followed afterwards. Lincoln reminded his audience of the sacrifices the Founders had made to make the American nation great and free, and with the passing of them all, the burden of continuing their legacy fell upon the shoulders of the new generation. Therefore, Lincoln placed so much emphasis on the dangers of mob rule and political apathy. Lincoln warned that a mob law would destroy the government, as the mob rejected the laws of the government, and the law-abiding citizens seeing the impotence of the government, would also distrust and hate it. Therefore, Lincoln argued, bad laws were better than no laws. Lincoln concluded the speech by calling his listeners to reason, intelligence, morality, "and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws" (Lyceum Address, 1838).
Four years later, Lincoln delivered another important but also controversial speech. He addressed a crowd in the Second Presbyterian Church and decried religious fanaticism and the lawyers' vanity. Though the topic of his discussion was seemingly apolitical, Lincoln made several political suggestions through his denunciation of preachers and lawyers who pursued temperance with excessive passion and fanaticism. For Lincoln, preachers who kept denouncing and cursing intemperance acted against the nature of humanity, and thus against freedom, and thus against the principles upon which the United States was built. Preachers and lawyers often behaved like dictatorial agents, which Lincoln shunned and instead called for logic, reason, and persuasion as means to combat drunkenness. Instead of rejecting drunkards, Lincoln urged sympathy and understanding.
In his Temperance Address, Lincoln also began to express a poetic prose, quoting a theologian and logician Isaac Watts ("While the lamp holds out to burn / The vilest sinner may return"), and making a few references to Christianity. Poetry was important for Lincoln as it was not only a way of addressing the crowd but also guidance. Poetry, Lincoln believed, instilled morality and sound reasoning. He was an astute reader of Shakespeare and learned about the folly of war from the great English poet. So, beginning with the Temperance Address and afterwards, Lincoln resorted to poetry more often. Lincoln made references to Christianity, and appealed to the audience's patriotism, reminding them that the United States was a redeemer nation, willing to expand the idea of democracy and liberty to mankind. And again, reason was important, as the following quote attests: "Hail fall of Fury! Reign of Reason, all hail!" Another important reference in the Temperance Address was Lincoln's equation of drunkenness with slavery and yearning for a moment when neither of the two evils would exist. "And when the victory shall be complete," he said, "when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth -- how proud the title of that Land, which may truly claim to be the birth-place and the cradle of both those revolutions, that shall have ended in that victory" (Temperance Address, 1832).
As Lincoln moved closer toward his presidential career, he became more succinct in his speeches, more passionate, although in a very measured and reasoned manner, and made more references to morality and God. This is evidently visible in his Farewell Address in 1861. Lincoln here is brief, very humble, and shows himself in need of God's help and his friends' prayers. "Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him," Lincoln says, "I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail" (Farewell Address, 1861). Lincoln expresses his faith and trust in God but also suggests that a great responsibility fell upon his shoulders.
Lincoln's brevity in his Farewell Address and other public speeches at the time may be partly be explained by his transition to the role of a President. He realized that he needed to be more careful. He nevertheless delivered a lengthy speech in his First Inaugural Address. The Inaugural speech, however, was not wordy as his earlier speeches. It was long as compared to his second inaugural, but Lincoln felt he had to say a lot. There was an imminent danger of civil war, and both the Northerners and the Southerners were anxious to hear what the President had to say. In order to mitigate the concerns of both the Abolitionists and the slave-owners, Lincoln crafted a shrewd speech, sometimes deliberately making ambiguous statements over his own position, but also bold enough to be frank about certain issues. Lincoln tried to assure the Southerners by saying that the federal state would not interfere in the state rights, but also warned against secession. Lincoln likened secession to anarchy, and talking about the imminent civil war, suggested that the ball was in the Southerners' hand. Even in a speech intended to warn, Lincoln did not say "face war if you secede," but addressed the Southerners in a friendly manner. "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. . . . You can have on conflict without being yourselves the aggressors," he said. But Lincoln also made a quasi-religious statement, saying that "I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend" the Union (First Inaugural Address, 1861).
The outbreak of the Civil War and Lincoln's inability to dissuade the Southerners from seceding deeply impacted him. In his latest speeches, he expressed himself very briefly but with powerful statements. These characteristics made his Gettysburg Address one of the most memorable in the history of the United States. "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," Lincoln said in the opening of his speech. In one sentence, Lincoln invoked the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the dictum affirming universal equality of mankind. In this speech, Lincoln appealed not just to reason but also to the voices of heart…