by Michael Liss
“He knew the American people better than they knew themselves, and his truth was based upon this knowledge.” —Frederick Douglass, Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, April 14, 1876
In October of 1859, Abraham Lincoln received an invitation to come to New York to deliver a lecture at the Abolitionist minster Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn.
Although Lincoln was, at this time, largely a regional figure among Republicans, and held no public office, the invitation was not accidental. The party was still a bit like a Rube Goldberg contraption, made up of pieces (former Whigs, Know-Nothings, disaffected Northern Democrats) that didn’t all quite fit together. People of influence, notably the newspaper publishers William Cullen Bryant and Horace Greeley, knew the new movement needed a coherent, inclusive platform, and an articulate, attractive man to lead it.
They weren’t, by any means, anointing Lincoln—in fact, they had no idea what he could do. He had acquitted himself well in his 1858 Senate race against Stephen Douglas, the presumed 1860 Democratic Presidential nominee, but he had also lost. There were other questions as well: Would a person some described as a “backwoodsman” play in front of a New York audience?
What was obvious was that the most likely Republican candidates for the nomination were either flawed or disliked, or flawed and disliked. The presumed frontrunner, William Seward of New York, was unquestionably competent, but had made some radical-sounding speeches and was seen by many as a captive of Thurlow Weed’s political machine. Seward’s support was also thin in lower North states like Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois—all of which Republicans had lost in 1856 and were essential to victory this time. Other potential candidates had different weaknesses: Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase was an able Governor, but lacked what we would now call retail political skills. Pennsylvania’s favorite, Simon Cameron, was undeniably corrupt. The fourth “first tier” candidate, Edward Bates of Missouri, was 66, barely a Republican, and almost certainly the most conservative. It was hard to see how he could have ignited a movement.
Lincoln knew this, saw the opening, and immediately accepted the invitation. The warm glow that history places around him for his compassion and tragic martyrdom obscures just how practical and even calculating a man he was. The New York speech was his chance to elevate himself in front of a new and potent audience. He threw himself into preparation, researching the historical record and refining his remarks. He knew he didn’t need to persuade his listeners that slavery was wrong—they already believed that. Rather, he had to do what truly great leaders do—elevate the discussion, offer a pathway for a broader campaign based on something more than mere political calculation, and do so in a way that was distinctively his.
He arrived in New York a few days early, and learned that the Young Men’s Central Republican Union (influenced heavily by the not-young Greeley and Bryant) was now the sponsor. They had moved the location to the newly-constructed Cooper Union in Manhattan, and Republican-leaning newspapers were publicizing Lincoln’s appearance as a rebuttal to Stephen Douglas, the Democrats, and slavery in general.
On February 27, 1860, 1500 politically-minded New Yorkers tramped through the snow and filled to capacity the gas-lit auditorium. In the audience were some of the most influential people in the City, including Bryant and Greeley, the publisher H.W. Putnam, former Governor John King, and Peter Cooper himself and his business partner (and later Mayor of New York) Abram S. Hewitt.
He was introduced, and, from every description available, caused people to wonder just what strange species of bird they were looking at. Lincoln’s new suit was wrinkled and seemed cut for a different man altogether. His hair needed combing, his huge hands flapped awkwardly, and his voice, higher pitched than expected, was neither elegant nor sonorous.
Then, the lawyer began to make his case, and, one by one, his listeners fell under his spell.
Read it, and you may find, as I did, a mystery about this speech. It’s not graceful, not poetic, not filled with the kind of lines you would chisel into marble, except for the famous final few words. It’s not the way we think of Lincoln at his best, yet, there is something about it that made hundreds of skeptical New Yorkers Lincoln enthusiasts, and transformed him into a truly credible candidate for President.
The speech is divided into three thought units, which Lincoln then clinches together with his distinctive brand of moral clarity.
First, Lincoln explores the question “Does the proper division of local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal Government to control as to slavery in our Federal Territories?”
Every lawyer knows you should never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer. But a great lawyer is able to give his own arguments more potency by co-opting the framework suggested by his adversary, and then turning it to his own advantage.
Lincoln quotes Douglas himself, who wrote: “‘Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.’”
Of course, he agrees with that statement, he adopts it as the starting point for his speech, and then he goes on to ask, and answer, in utterly reasonable and rational terms, “What was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?”
From that point forward, Lincoln is in command. He will define the universe.
First, he picks his court—the “fathers” are the 39 signers of the Constitution, and, later, the 76 members of the first Congress who adopted the first twelve Amendments.
Then, he picks his facts. Meticulously, taking a path of more than 3000 words and nearly 40 years, from regulation of the Northwest Territories in 1785, to the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance, the Louisiana Purchase, the ceding to the Federal government of Tennessee by North Carolina, and Alabama and Mississippi by Georgia, and finally to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, he sketches the history of Federal regulation of slavery in the Territories, and finds support by at least 23 of those fathers for those regulations. Lincoln sets a high standard of proof for himself—even expressions of hostility towards slavery were not enough—the “father” must have actually placed himself on the record on the specific question of Federal control of slavery in the Territories.
It’s a lawyer’s brief, and upon first reading, you wonder whether he is going to lose his audience, such is the focus on detail. But take a little time with it, and you can see that this part of his argument, this careful building of evidence that demolishes Stephen Douglas’s and the South’s claims to unrestricted territorial expansion, leads inevitably to the first emotional climax:
“But enough! Let all who believe that ‘our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now,’ speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask – all Republicans desire – in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity. Let all the guarantees those fathers gave it, be, not grudgingly, but fully and fairly, maintained. For this Republicans contend, and with this, so far as I know or believe, they will be content.”
It is a brilliant touch. It makes them (the Republicans, and, by extension, every fair-minded person in the audience) the true conservatives. They are not pitchfork-wielding Abolitionists; they are not radicals; they are the keepers of the flame, the heirs to the father’s legacy.
Lincoln then turns his attention to the South, and, here, his language takes an interesting turn. Having been first been cerebral and professorial in the “evidentiary” portion of his case, he becomes almost prosecutorial.
First, he takes note that the South will not even tolerate Republicans, much less agree with any portion of their ideas. “(W)hen you speak of us Republicans, you do so only to denounce us as reptiles, or, at the best, as no better than outlaws. You will grant a hearing to pirates or murderers, but nothing like it to ‘Black Republicans.’ … Now, can you, or not, be prevailed upon to pause and to consider whether this is quite just to us, or even to yourselves? Bring forward your charges and specifications, and then be patient long enough to hear us deny or justify.”
Since there seems to be no Southerners in the audience, Lincoln then takes charge of the “debate” himself.
First, Republicans are not sectional: It is the Southerners who refuse to allow Republicans to compete in their region. Lincoln clearly does not expect that Republican ideas would win elections in the slave-holding states, but he does believe they would win votes. The refusal of the South even to grant Republicans an audience is a sign of their unwillingness to abide by democratic principles—and their fear of competition in a war of ideas.
Second, It isn’t Republicans who are accelerating the debate by abandoning the path of the fathers. It is the South, in demanding a laundry list of new policies, and Stephen Douglas, advocating “for the “gur-reat pur-rinciple” that “if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,” who are rejecting the intention and the governing ideas of the people who risked all to create America. “Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our Government originated.”
Third, Republicans are not stirring up slave revolts, or encouraging more John Browns. “John Brown was no Republican: and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise.” Lincoln knows they know it as well—he sees the charge simply as political tactic—in contemporary terms, a way of firing up the base. And, he rejects the claim that, even if Republicans are not deliberately encouraging upheaval, it is inevitable because of their stated principles. He makes a very shrewd argument that has to appeal to his audience on an intellectual and emotional level: It is the issue of slavery, and not the political vehicle opposing the spread of it, that creates instability: “There is a judgment and a feeling against slavery in this nation, which cast at least a million and a half of votes. You cannot destroy that judgment and feeling – that sentiment – by breaking up the political organization which rallies around it. …but if you could, how much would you gain by forcing the sentiment which created it out of the peaceful channel of the ballot-box, into some other channel? What would that other channel probably be? Would the number of John Browns be lessened or enlarged by the operation?”
All this leads up to an inevitable conclusion. The South claims the backing of the fathers, but then ignores them to define the constitutional rights of slaveholders as opportunistically and expansively as it wishes. It will not accept either open debate, or a political result with which it does not agree. In one of Lincoln’s most memorable phrases: “But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’”
Still, Lincoln holds back. He turns to his audience and his fellow Republicans and counsels patience and accommodation, with a little twist (Lincoln read Shakespeare avidly, and there’s a bit of Mark Antony’s eulogy in Julius Caesar to this section). “A few words now to Republicans. It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.”
Having laid out that sweetly reasonable path, he then proceeds to identify all the landmines. He knows, his audience knows, the country knows, that what he’s suggested is impossible. The South will not accept the status quo. They will not accept an offer of all the Territories, to do with them whatever they wish. They will not accept even the most heartfelt and genuine apologies and promises to do better. In Lincoln’s acute turn of phrase, “We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone.”
How to convince the doubting South? Here’s where Lincoln turns up the courtroom rhetoric: “This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.”
If Lincoln had stopped here, you would have had a fine opening statement, a wonderfully persuasive presentation of evidence, a superb cross-examination, and even a little fist-shaking in front of the jury. But what marked him as an exceptional man—not just a politician looking for a clever formulation—but a moral leader—and what, in my opinion, truly drew people to him, was what followed.
“Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of ‘don’t care’ on a question about which all true men do care….”
I can’t get this phrase out of my mind: “groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of ‘don’t care’ on a question about which all true men do care.”
In a few short words, he transforms himself from forceful, effective advocate to true leader, speaking to the difficulties both he and his audience had in blending a serious-but-secular obligation (fealty to the Constitution) together with a universal one of principle (objecting to the loathsome practice of enslaving another human being). Lincoln tells his audience what they most need to hear: that the law and morality can and must coexist, that there are some things where there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Slavery was wrong, their cause was noble, and they were on the side of the angels.
“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
And the crowd stood, and cheered, and waved handkerchiefs and hats at the strange-looking man in the ill-fitting suit. Some surely must have agreed with Noah Brooks, then a reporter for The New York Tribune.
Lincoln, he said, “was the greatest man since Saint Paul.”