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Paving the Way
Few presidents are as memorable as Abraham Lincoln, and understandably so. He paved the way for a new birth of freedom, sought to uphold the proposition that all men are created equal, and brought the union back together during its largest crisis. While Lincoln proved to be a great statesman, he was also an impeccable orator.
Both before and during his presidency, Lincoln delivered a series of timeless speeches, all of which have become embedded within American memory. The Gettysburg Address, “House Divided,” and his response to the Dred Scott decision are three of the most memorable works. Even before then, however, Lincoln’s words captured the hearts of those willing to listen to the meaning within them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his first prominent speech was delivered in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
Born near Hodgenville, Kentucky, the Lincoln family moved to Illinois in March 1830. Often self-taught, Lincoln was an avid reader and enjoyed researching new things. According to the National Park Service, Lincoln was encouraged to study law in 1834, and in 1837, he began work as an attorney.
As a member of the Whig Party, Lincoln studied the Constitution and wished to follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers. As such, he was heavily opposed to slavery and the spread of it. This belief would later become a cornerstone for him, leading to his decision to join the newly-formed Republican Party in 1854.
Abraham Lincoln: American Prophet
On January 27, 1838, Lincoln delivered the first of his iconic speeches. At 29 years of age, he stood at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. Putting together aspects from his own studies, Lincoln used the Lyceum Address – officially known as “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” – to oppose the spread of slavery, call for American greatness in Unity, and promote the upholding of our Constitution and legal system.
Few speeches in American memory have been as prophetic as the Lyceum Address. Though the Civil War would not happen for more than 20 years at the time of the dialogue, Lincoln’s words would foreshadow certain things that we can still reflect upon. At the start of the speech, we see Lincoln reflecting on America as a blessed land.
“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American people, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian Era. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.”
“All the Treasure of the Earth”
Lincoln then delivers a stunning, prophetic warning. While he may have unknowingly predicted the Civil War, his words apply every bit as much today as they did in 1861. America has proven to be indestructible at the hands of outside foes. But today, as well as back then, there are those who wish to pervert the American system and ruin the foundation set for future generations.
As Lincoln understood, a country that does can not survive. He addressed these issues, stating, “This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform. How then shall we perform it? At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?”
“Shall we expect some Trans-Atlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or leave a track in the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”
“At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live by all time, or die by suicide.”
Lincoln and the Rule of Law
In Lincoln’s day, there were many horrific instances of lynching by lawless mobs. These mobs held little regard for the sanctity of life and did not follow the “innocent until proven guilty” rule. For Lincoln, they appeared to be an increasing problem, and were not limited to a specific region of the country. As a result, he acknowledged that their terror stretched from the snowy woods of New England to the sun-parched swamps of Louisiana.
Black people accused of a crime, as well as Whites who were supposedly “in-league” with them, were killed without a trial, often in horrifying manners. Whether innocent or guilty of the crime they were accused of, the mobs were notorious for leaving the justice system little room to perform its proper duty. As Lincoln recalled, “Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis.”
“A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short, and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic of anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour of the time he had been a free man, attending to his own business and at peace with the world.”
Lincoln goes on to acknowledge, however, that the man had just earlier killed one of the city’s prominent citizens. Though the mob was right to be angry, they were wrong to take the matter into their own hands, rather than allow the justice system to act. Lincoln compared the lynching of the man in St. Louis to the lynching of gamblers in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and stated that when a mob is allowed to take those situations into their own hands, they will just as likely execute an innocent person as soon as one who is guilty. To Lincoln, the rule of law must be followed and upheld.
“Let Every Lover of Liberty…”
The speech continues further, and Lincoln begs his fellow Americans to dedicate themselves to the upholding of the values placed by the founders. For American greatness to remain in perpetuity, our values must never be lost. Lincoln remarked, “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.”
“As the patriots of seventy-six did to support the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and the laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.”
As the speech concluded, Lincoln’s destiny was sealed. In a little over 20 years, he would prove to be the leader America needed during its most divisive time. “Upon these, let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’”