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How Abraham Lincoln’s Speeches Preserved American Self-Government

cover art featuring Abraham Lincoln
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Diana Schaub’s book, ‘His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation,’ provides valuable insight on how Lincoln’s words illuminate our current political debates.


In his day, members of upper-class society likely viewed Abraham Lincoln with a mixture of amusement and revulsion. With his high, shrill voice, Lincoln had neither an impressive family lineage nor much of a formal education, save for less than a single year of schooling.

Cartoonists and political opponents regularly assailed his gangly, awkward features and unfairly attempted to portray him as a country bumpkin. Especially as a young man, Lincoln was generally not surrounded by individuals of “approved intellectual distinction.” Instead, he mostly interacted with “crude people within a narrow horizon,” according to his renowned biographer Lord Charnwood.

Despite his odd features and lack of credentials, he was a man of prodigious talents who possessed a steel-trap mind. Our nation’s greatest president, Lincoln was also its most profound thinker and speaker. He sat at the feet of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible, whose cadence, word choice, and poetry shaped his soul. Combining penetrating political analysis and deep theological insights, his speeches feature some of the greatest rhetorical feats in human history with an even nobler purpose: the salvation of free government.

In “His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation,” Diana Schaub gives a close reading of three of Lincoln’s landmark speeches: the well-known Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural and the less celebrated but vital Lyceum Address. A professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland, Schaub reads these speeches together as an extended commentary on human nature, the ever-present threats to republican government, the habits and virtues self-governing citizens need to possess, and the God who watches over His natural order.

The Proposition of Equality

Schaub argues in this brief but deeply learned work that these speeches lay out Lincoln’s sustained reflections on the crucial years of 1787 (the Lyceum Address), when the Constitution was written; 1776 (the Gettysburg Address), when the nation declared its independence; and, more controversially, 1619 (the Second Inaugural), the year she says the first slaves were brought to America. In her patient, careful excavation of each speech, she uncovers many hidden riches along the way.

For example, most people know that Lincoln’s famous invocation of “four score and seven years ago” in the Gettysburg Address points back to 1776. Continuing to dig, Schaub discovers in previous speeches that Lincoln regularly used the phrase “eighty years ago” in different variations rather than the famous language taken from the 90th Psalm.

She convincingly argues that Lincoln made this change to strike a “somber,” “darker tone” and show his audience there could be limits “on the lifespan of mankind’s political collectives” just as there are on “individual life.” Self-government is a fragile thing, and its transmission from one generation to the next is fraught with difficulties that Lincoln’s audience then—and modern audiences now—may not fully appreciate. Page after page brims with similar insights.

Schaub contends it is impossible to appreciate Lincoln’s speeches fully without understanding the foundation on which they rested: the Declaration of Independence. Although he often drew his audience back to the “frame of silver,” the constitutionalism of the American Founding, his most weighty and lucid thoughts came when discussing the “apple of gold” of the Declaration.

Lincoln made “appeals to the Declaration not only in nearly every major speech but in letters and even scraps of paper,” she writes. As Lincoln himself once stated, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Of all the presidents, he was unquestionably the Declaration’s greatest interpreter; only Calvin Coolidge and John Quincy Adams have come close to matching his perspicacity and interpretative depth.

Of Lincoln’s meditations on the Declaration, his most famous (and shortest) occurs in the Gettysburg Address. There, he calls the principle that “all men are created equal”—what the Declaration labels a “self-evident” truth—instead a “proposition,” a term borrowed from Euclidean geometry. Unlike self-evident, which Schaub notes “doesn’t require proof,” a proposition “must be demonstrated in practice.”

Due to the efforts of southerners like John C. Calhoun and northerners such as Indiana Sen. John Pettit, she reasons that natural human equality in 1863 had to be “proved in action—that action being the restoration of a Union dedicated” to that ontological and moral principle. In the Civil War, Schaub contends, Lincoln saw that not only was the nation dedicated to that foundational axiom at stake but also “the very possibility of political life based on such premises.” A failure of self-government in America “would constitute the failure of popular government altogether,” she argues.

The Rule of Law

In Lincoln’s estimation, while slavery presented the most obvious challenge to republican government, the rise of mob rule was another grave, and likely related, threat. In the Lyceum Address, he said this popular form of despotism was “common to the whole country,” where “outrages committed by mobs” were in the “every-day news of the times.” Mobs in Mississippi and St. Louis, for instance, indiscriminately lynched blacks and whites who were thought to be helping them, gamblers, and even random out-of-state visitors.

As Frederick Douglass would write of slavery, Lincoln maintained that the effects of lawlessness were not simply confined to the ones committing it. Patriotic Americans who saw lawless acts go unpunished and the blatant hypocrisy of the rule of the strong would eventually turn against the government:

While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defence of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.

A growing disregard for the rule of law among the demos, Schaub argues, will ultimately result in the “overthrow of popular government.” Lincoln predicted that a tyrant from the “family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle” would rise and use the nation as a playground for his own inexhaustible ambitions and passions.

Lincoln’s solution, Schaub says, was to elevate absolute fidelity to the law through “cold, calculating unimpassioned reason.” Although this proposal seems utopian considering human nature—which is anything but coldly logical—she maintains he was fully “aware that reason” alone would “not secure the required obedience.” Lincoln made clear that the “materials” reason provides would need to be “moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws” among citizens.

She writes that “mothers, teachers, and preachers” would need to help inculcate a civic education worthy of republican citizenship through “habituation and piety.” Through this hard work, reverence for the law would become the “political religion of the nation,” a commonly over-interpreted phrase of Lincoln’s that should be read in a straightforward manner.

Lincoln taught that an important condition of lawfulness was following bad laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Schaub notes that he believed all laws should be “religiously obeyed until they are repealed or reformed through constitutional channels”—that is, by political representatives of a rightful majority. Government either by a majority or minority acting in violation of the law, in Lincoln’s view, would ultimately descend into anarchy, as evidenced by the secession crisis that preceded his presidency.

Zeroing in on an implication of this argument, Schaub contends that the concept of civil disobedience thus had no place in Lincoln’s politics. She contrasts Lincoln’s—and, surprisingly, Malcom X’s—strict adherence to the twin alternatives of ballots or bullets, free government or appealing to the right of revolution, to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “antinomian” advocacy for civil disobedience.

King, she argues, “inflated the role that disobedience played in bringing about positive social change” and could have had the unintentional effect of eroding “respect for the rule of law” in our world today. Although this argument challenges part of our modern moral consensus on King and the civil rights movement, Schaub’s contention needs to be taken seriously and thought through.

Our National Struggle

Finally, she turns to the Second Inaugural, in which Lincoln “reads our national story as a struggle between the principles of natural right, enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution, and the violation of those principles in American Slavery.” Rising above even the category of political thought, the speech is ultimately a profound meditation on the judgment God exacted on America due to the presence of chattel slavery.

In writing that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural “deserves to be called his 1619 address,” Schaub is not validating the ideological revisionism of The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Instead, she argues that Lincoln’s citing of the “bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” dates back nearly to 1619, the year “of the arrival of the first slaves on American shores.” She contends that Lincoln’s source was likely the eighteenth-century historian William Grimshaw, who described “captives ‘from the coast of Guinea’ arriving on a ‘Dutch ship’ and being sold to Virginia planters” between 1616 and 1619.

Some historians have disputed this claim. According to Richard Samuelson, it is not “clear that the slaves the Dutch brought to Virginia in 1619 were, after their sale, treated as slaves.” In fact, he notes, “Slavery did not yet exist in colonial law. Some may very well have been treated as slaves as the term came to be defined, but others probably were not.” Kevin Gutzman has voiced a related concern: “Recent archival research has established that John Rolfe’s famous letter referring to the arrival of ‘20. and odd Negroes’ may well not have referred to the first blacks in the colony.”

Nevertheless, whatever the specific date when the first slaves arrived, Lincoln saw slavery as a malignant cancer upon the nation that was allowed to fester and grow, a cancer the nation excised at the unfathomable cost of approximately 620,00 deaths and 1.5 million casualties. “Because the offense of slavery belongs to the nation,” Schaub writes, “the punishment is meted out to both North and South.”

She is right to highlight the contrast between Lincoln’s attempts at reunion and the national discord that has resulted partly due to the 1619 Project’s teachings. In her view, the 1619 Project is at its core a full-scale “attack on 1776, 1787, and even 1865.” Rather than issuing an invitation for a conversation between fellow citizens, it harangues and cajoles citizens using slanted and false history, weaponizing their sincere morality to secure specific political ends. The 1619 Project undoubtedly strikes at the heart of civic friendship and the very possibility of a unity of the American mind on principles and practices.

Contrary to the 1619 Project’s teaching “that the nation is irredeemably racist,” Schaub argues that “1776 was not a continuation of the spirit of 1619 but its antithesis”; instead, “It was the Confederate constitution of 1861 that enshrined the spirit of 1619.” Rather than sowing division and disunion, “Lincoln’s speeches were directed toward recovery of the nation’s integrity, re-conjoining word and deed, promise and performance.”

He did not blame sociological abstractions such as “white privilege” or other charged terms that are often used to browbeat opponents into submission. Lincoln nationalized the wrong of slavery rather than racializing it.

Schaub shows that Lincoln attempted “to blunt the force” of “northern moralistic arrogance, southern regressive resentment, white race hatred, and Black rage” by insisting “on the complicity of both North and South in American Slavery.” He emphasized a “shared national suffering as a consequence of shared national transgression,” calling citizens to adhere to the country’s founding principles, quashing enmity and malice, and restoring civic friendship and peace.

By reading and studying “the compelling quality . . . grammar, logic, and rhetoric” of Lincoln’s speeches, Schaub writes that they “can once again restore the promise of America by reminding us of the promises we have made as democratic citizens.” For the restoration of America to be realized, however, word must be translated into deed; citizens need to take action to restore the blessings of liberty for future generations.

“Mere words,” she notes, “could not bring forth the ‘new birth of freedom’—only battlefield victories could do that.” Logos, in other words, should lead to praxis.

Lincoln’s speeches were aimed at refashioning new props and pillars to support self-government in his time. But what props and pillars are necessary for us today? How can reverence for the law and peace between citizens be secured in an age of increasing lawlessness and bifurcation? And who among us has the ambition necessary to carry out this national recovery?

Once again, we can turn to Lincoln’s wisdom in our quest to find answers to these difficult questions: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”