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May I recommend two books? Harold Holzer’s Lincoln at Cooper Union and Lewis E. Lehrman’s Lincoln at Peoria are wonderful treatments of wonderful speeches. The authors present Lincoln’s moral genius and rhetorical power in the context of the critical issue — the extension of slavery — and the era’s state and national party politics.
Of the two eponymous speeches, I especially like Peoria. Lincoln gave this speech as he shadowed Stephen Douglas on the hustings in Illinois. Douglas was addressing voters in support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the west for the extension of slavery.
Here’s why I like Lincoln’s Peoria speech: the audience.
This was not a paying audience, like the one at Cooper Union, but an audience of citizen voters. Lincoln, the trial lawyer, recognized and respected these yeoman farmers, merchants, mechanics, and artisans as a jury pool. He knew that citizen jurors were capable of hearing the facts of a case, logically presented; he knew them capable of deliberating upon those facts and rendering a judgement.
He presented his case logically, building on principles and facts, respectfully refuting points made by his opponent:
The arguments by which the repeal of the Missouri Compromise is sought to be justified, are these:
First, that the Nebraska country needed a territorial government.
Second, that in various ways, the public had repudiated it, and demanded the repeal; and therefore should not now complain of it.
And lastly, that the repeal establishes a principle, which is intrinsically right.
I will attempt an answer to each of them in its turn. First, then, if that country was in need of a territorial organization, could it not have had it as well without as with the repeal? Iowa and Minnesota, to both of which the Missouri restriction applied, had, without its repeal, each in succession, territorial organizations. And even, the year before, a bill for Nebraska itself, was within an ace of passing, without the repealing clause; and this in the hands of the same men who are now the champions of repeal. Why no necessity then for the repeal? But still later, when this very bill was first brought in, it contained no repeal. But, say they, because the public had demanded, or rather commanded the repeal, the repeal was to accompany the organization, whenever that should occur.
Now I deny that the public ever demanded any such thing — ever repudiated the Missouri Compromise — ever commanded its repeal. I deny it, and call for the proof. It is not contended, I believe, that any such command has ever been given in express terms. It is only said that it was done in principle. The support of the Wilmot Proviso, is the first fact mentioned, to prove that the Missouri restriction was repudiated in principle, and the second is, the refusal to extend the Missouri line over the country acquired from Mexico. These are near enough alike to be treated together. The one was to exclude the chances of slavery from the whole new acquisition by the lump; and the other was to reject a division of it, by which one half was to be given up to those chances. Now whether this was a repudiation of the Missouri line, in principle, depends upon whether the Missouri law contained any principle requiring the line to be extended over the country acquired from Mexico. I contend it did not. I insist that it contained no general principle, but that it was, in every sense, specific. That its terms limit it to the country purchased from France, is undenied and undeniable. It could have no principle beyond the intention of those who made it. They did not intend to extend the line to country which they did not own. If they intended to extend it, in the event of acquiring additional territory, why did they not say so? It was just as easy to say, that “in all the country west of the Mississippi, which we now own, or may hereafter acquire there shall never be slavery,” as to say, what they did say; and they would have said it if they had meant it. An intention to extend the law is not only not mentioned in the law, but is not mentioned in any contemporaneous history. Both the law itself, and the history of the times are a blank as to any principle of extension; and by neither the known rules for construing statutes and contracts, nor by common sense, can any such principle be inferred.
This rhetorical style is characteristic of all Lincoln’s greatest speeches.
Contrast that with the rhetorical styles of modern political candidates. Perhaps this is the supreme irony of the communications age. Who speaks logically about important issues such as immigration, abortion, federalism, foreign policy, or the debt crisis? Who makes a case by building arguments on principles and facts, respectfully refuting his or her opponents, and leaving to you and me, the citizen jurors (not the lumpen electorate) the task of deliberating and rendering our individual judgements?
If, after the primary process is done and the nominating conventions are over, we enter the penalty phase of the election with candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I’ll enter the voting booth in November 2016 and cast my defiant vote for Abraham Lincoln.Published in