Rare Political Courage

It was on this day, 16 June 1858, that Illinois Senatorial Candidate Abraham Lincoln delivered one of his greatest speeches – indeed, one of the landmark speeches in American history. Known as the “House Divided” speech, Lincoln’s address to some 1,000 Republican delegates in Springfield, Illinois included the Biblical reference: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” It aroused the most ardent Republicans at the convention with the extreme position that Lincoln adopted, expressed in such phrases as: “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.” After this speech was published, Abraham Lincoln rocketed to the forefront of national public awareness, and he became a lightning rod for criticism for almost every quarter.

As history soon unfolded, Lincoln’s speech was nearly prophetic. The issue of slavery, which would admit no political compromise, in the end was decided by fire and sword in one of the most devastating and deadly wars of the 19th Century. The fame Lincoln had earned as a Senatorial candidate for a distant “Western” state ultimately secured for him the Republican Party’s 1860 presidential nomination. In a deeply divisive election, he became the 16th President of The United States of America, one who is continually ranked among the three greatest men to have ever served in that capacity.

It is worth noting, though, that Lincoln’s speech of 154 years ago, however much public attention it gained him, failed to win him a Senate seat. Lincoln lost to his famous opponent, Stephen Douglas. The voters of Illinois were not yet ready, in 1858, to send such a radical thinker to represent them in Washington. Two years later, the mood had shifted greatly. They say a week is a year in politics, so two years must be as centuries. By 1865, Lincoln’s “divided house” had nearly fallen in two, yet somehow survived. But slavery – that soul-searing, paramount issue – could not endure.

It is also worth noting that some key Illinois Republicans had advised Lincoln against making that speech. They were correct, politically: taking so firm a position cost him the Senate seat. But making that speech gained Lincoln the presidency, and it ultimately gained for America a new birth of freedom. The work is not even now complete, but Lincoln’s courage in saying what he had to say, rather than what was politically prudent to say, made a difference, and changed history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I will prepare and someday my chance will come. — Abraham Lincoln

Further Reading:

More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in American history except, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin. My own small collection of Lincoln books runs to 17 volumes, some fairly hefty. In 1992, Garry Wills published Lincoln At Gettysburg about Lincoln’s most famous speech. This treatment started something of a trend, and subsequently several historians have published books devoted to just a single one of Lincoln’s speeches or proclamtions. Herewith, my own sampling:

Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills; Simon & Schuster, 1992: ISBN: 0671769561

This is a detailed history of Lincoln’s speech and its impact. Wills includes analysis of the speech from the perspective of 19th Century oratorical standards, and he discusses the effect of Lincoln’s brief and concise style upon later oratorical trends. The other speeches delivered at Gettysburg that day are included in the extensive appendices.

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White, Jr.; Simon & Schuster, 2002: ISBN: 0743212983

White examines Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and assesses its unique place among all of Lincoln’s speeches; it was, as Frederick Douglass observed, “more like a sermon than a state paper.” This relatively short book (about 200 pages) is by no means the last word on this important speech, but White provides an interesting and thought provoking contribution to the discussion of Lincoln’s speeches.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End Of Slevery In America, Allen G. Guelzo; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743221826

Guelzo received the Lincoln Prize for his 2000 biography of Lincoln. This work, despite its rather glib subtitle, is by no means so simple as to assume that Lincoln’s proclamation actully itself ended slavery. Indeed, Guelzo looks carefully at the politics which influenced the proclamation, and the results, both political and social, which the proclamation produced.

Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, Harold Holzer; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743224663

Because Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in February 1860 has faded from modern memory, Holzer felt it was time to give a book-length treatment of the speech which Lincoln and his contemporaries identified as the one that gained him his party’s nomination. The speech contains many well-known Lincoln quotations, but its overall importance is given its due in the entertaining and enlightening work. I like Holzer’s emphasis on Lincoln’s political courage in carrying his campaign platform into New York City and the heart of his rival William Seward’s strong home base. (I obviously admire Lincoln’s political courage.)

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