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Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, is best known for leading the Union forces during the American Civil War, and for composing such works as The Gettysburg Address, The Emancipation Proclamation, and the Second Inaugural Address. As a self-educated lawyer from Illinois, Lincoln wrote and spoke in a simple, accessible style that emphasized order and balance.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From the Frontier to Washington
Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 in Kentucky and soon afterward moved with his family to Indiana, which in the early nineteenth century was a frontier area with limited settlement and few conveniences. Both of Lincoln’s parents were illiterate, and Lincoln himself received less than one year of formal schooling. As a boy, however, Lincoln learned to read and dedicated himself to his own education. Despite his intellectual pursuits, Lincoln spent much of his youth working as a hand on the family farm. In 1830 Lincoln moved with his family to Illinois, where he continued to farm and also worked as a ferryman and store clerk.
At the age of twenty-two, Lincoln left Indiana and ventured down the Mississippi River on a flatboat expedition. This trip broadened his perspective on American life. In particular, it introduced Lincoln to the institution of slavery then present in the Southern states. After this experience, Lincoln would identify himself as an antislavery advocate and would struggle for the rest of his life with the issue of ending slavery in the United States.
Shortly after his trip down the Mississippi, Lincoln enlisted in the Illinois militia, and served in the Black-hawk War of 1832, a conflict between American settlers and the Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo Indian tribes, led by Chief Black Hawk. The conflict resulted in hundreds of deaths, and ultimately resulted in the collapse of the last organized Native American resistance to white settlement in Illinois.
After returning from the Blackhawk War, Lincoln himself settled into the growing town of New Salem, where he studied law while working as a postmaster. He made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Illinois state legislature, but in 1834 he was elected to the state senate, and in 1836 he received his law license. The next year he moved to the state capital, Springfield, hoping to advance both his professional and political careers. His experience as a successful case attorney sharpened his speaking skills and helped him forge useful political connections in the process. Lincoln married Mary Todd in 1842, and raised a family while continuing his prosperous law practice. In 1846 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, but his opposition to the Mexican War made him unpopular and he was not reelected. The Mexican War, a dispute fought over the territories of Texas, New Mexico, and southern California, allowed the United States to expand its frontiers and gain more resources—a prospect that was very popular to residents of a frontier state like Illinois. After serving his one term in office, Lincoln returned to his law practice.
Lincoln established his practice by trying cases for the emerging railroad industry. In the first half of the nineteenth century, railroads were being constructed throughout the nation, and provided a crucial infrastructure for commerce and travel unprecedented in the young country’s history. Lincoln promoted railroad expansion, and argued that the state and federal governments should be lenient to railroad companies in order to encourage their business. He won many of his cases.
Lincoln decided to return to politics when the Kansas-Nebraska Act threatened to continue the expansion of slavery in the newly acquired western territories. The Act nullified the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had established that new western states would be free states. In response to this development, Lincoln ran for Senate, associating himself with the Republican Party and, although he lost, he retained his position that slavery should be restricted.
Presidency Over a Nation Divided
Lincoln ran a second time for senate in 1858. During the campaign, Lincoln distinguished himself in a series of seven debates, in which he delineated his views on slavery and other important issues of the time. His moderate views made him a popular spokesperson for the Republican Party. He believed slavery should not be extended to new territories but should be allowed to remain where already established. He did not believe that black Americans were equal to whites, but anticipated the end of bondage as a U.S. institution.
Lincoln continued to promote his antislavery views in an America that was increasingly divided between North and South. The Southern states opposed a strong federal government, and desired more state’s rights. By 1860, Lincoln’s reputation in the Republican Party led to his presidential nomination. He won the election against several candidates, but a number of Southern states had already seceded from the Union by the time Lincoln entered office in March 1861. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln assured the Southern states that their constitutional right to hold slaves would be upheld, but he insisted that the government must retain a large and concentrated federal power. Lincoln’s appeals for unity were overruled, however, and soon after taking office Lincoln found himself presiding over the bloodiest con-fict in U.S. history, the American Civil War (1861-1865). Lincoln was unwavering in his conviction that Southern states did not have the right to leave the Union.
During the Civil War Lincoln produced the two works for which he is best known: The Gettysburg Address and The Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at a memorial service for the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, the largest and bloodiest conflict of the war. This battle, won by Union troops, was the turning point in which the North gained advantage over its Confederate enemies. In Lincoln’s famous, three-paragraph eulogy for the fallen, he urged the nation to finish the war it had started and restore the democratic union. During 1863 Lincoln also drafted The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Southern states. Lincoln’s views were hotly debated, but thanks in part to additional military victories, his re-election in 1864 was a landslide victory.
In January 1865, Lincoln guided the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery throughout the United States. His Second Inaugural Address encouraged the healing of a wounded country. The war ended shortly thereafter, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in April. Less than one week later, Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln while he attended a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln’s conflicted public image seems to have been saved by his martyrdom, as his presidency is now seen as one of the most significant in the country’s history.
Works in Literary Context
President Lincoln delivered his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, on November 19, 1863, while dedicating a national cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield. In his speech of only three paragraphs, Lincoln harkened back to the founding principles
of equality that established the United States, and he invoked those same ideals to restore the grieving nation during the Civil War. The site of a significant Union victory that cost both sides dearly, Lincoln called the Gettysburg battlefield ”hallowed ground” because of the ”brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.” Planned only as a set of cursory remarks, Lincoln’s short address stood in stark contrast to the primary speaker’s talk, which lasted two hours. But Lincoln’s address, at once concise and powerfully eloquent, called for the democratic government to have ”a new birth of freedom,” and he prophesied that the ”government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Throughout his life, Lincoln struggled with the issue of slavery. His perspective grew out of a time when Southern states believed it was their sovereign right to use slaves to support their agricultural economy. Abolitionists in the North, however, argued that slavery was immoral. Lincoln believed in a middle ground, but felt that slavery would eventually divide the nation and thus should be restricted. In particular, Lincoln was a supporter of the Missouri Compromise, a congressional agreement made in 1820 that prohibited the spread of slavery to new western states. When the Missouri Compromise was repealed in the 1850s Lincoln became a spokesperson for the antislavery Republican Party.
However, Lincoln’s view that black Americans were not inherently equal to white Americans distinguished him from the most radical of abolitionists. Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863— which called for the freeing of slaves in rebel states— as both a moral and strategic decision. Not only did it eradicate a practice he believed was wrong, but it created a domestic crisis for Southerners in that it interfered with the stability of their society and allowed Southern Blacks to enlist in the Union army. Lincoln is often criticized for his reluctance to free slaves in all states, and detractors have argued that the proclamation was made more on military rather than moral grounds. Many historians agree that Lincoln kept his personal struggles with slavery and equality largely secondary to his primary goal of reuniting a divided country.
Works in Critical Context
Though Lincoln’s speeches and writings were often criticized by his political opponents, most literary critics praise Lincoln’ simple style, which often fused common sense with balanced sentences and paragraphs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the 1852 bestselling antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, reflected that Lincoln’s words ”have had that relish and smack of the soil, that appeal to the simple human heart and head, which is a greater power in writing than the most artful device or rhetoric.”
The Gettysburg Address
Upon its delivery in 1863, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was praised for its simple, direct style, and its artful use of repetition and parallel structure. Reviewing the speech, critic James Burrill Angell commented, ”It is often said that the hardest thing in the world is to make a five minute speech, but could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those few words of the President?” Josiah G. Holland found the speech to be ”a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”
However, Lincoln’s speech also met with criticism. Many Southern newspapers accused Lincoln of delivering the speech in a sanctimonious attitude unbecoming for a memorial service. And even in the North there were detractors. The Chicago Daily Times castigated Lincoln for expressing political partisanship in a eulogy and for misrepresenting the cause for which Union soldiers died at Gettysburg. The review of the speech summarized it as ”an offensive exhibition of boorishness and vulgarity.”
In general, however, the Gettysburg Address is accepted as a model of the ideal short speech. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his eulogy of Lincoln, said that the Gettysburg Address ”will not easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion.” In 1980 literary critic James Hurt claimed that Lincoln’s greatest speeches have the kind of resonance that we associate with poetry.”
The Emancipation Proclamation
The controversial 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the states then in rebellion and heightened the stakes and tension of the Civil War. Many critics, particularly in the North, praised Lincoln for taking the opportunity to make an important ethical decision. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, believed that the Emancipation Proclamation relieved the country of an immense moral burden, and validated the loss of life that the war wrought. Emerson wrote that with the freeing of slaves, ”we shall cease to be hypocrites and pretenders, but what we have styled our free institutions shall be such.”
Some critics, however, questioned whether the Emancipation Proclamation was an outgrowth of military strategy rather than a compassionate moral decision. The London Times, for example, wrote that ”the North, as a weapon of war, and not as a concession to principle, has finally decided on emancipation. That this measure is no homage to principle or conviction, but merely a means of raising up a domestic enemy against the Southerners in the midst of their Southern states, is abundantly proved from the fact that slavery, so odious in Alabama, is tolerated in Kentucky.” The newspaper argued that if Lincoln were truly dedicated to the ethics of abolishing slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation would have applied to all states instead of just the rebellious Southern states.
Second Inaugural Address
Critical reception of Lincoln’s 1865 Second Inaugural Address varied widely. The Petersburg, Virginia, Daily Express found the speech to be ”a compound of philanthropy, fanaticism, and scriptural morality.” This newspaper, as well as many other Southern papers, took issue with Lincoln’s account of the outbreak of the war. These papers argued that Lincoln presented himself as having no alternative but to start the war. Also, they criticized Lincoln for overemphasizing the issue of slavery, and argued that slavery was not the primary concern at the beginning of the war. Other papers, such as The New York World, found the speech to be merely ”vague and vacillating.” The paper criticized Lincoln for the ”vacuity in his speech” and postulated that Lincoln had said very little of substance out of fear he would alienate Southerners. The paper argued that the speech communicated the weakness of Lincoln’s political position. The London Spectator, however, felt differently. They found the articulateness of Lincoln’s speech to be evidence of his growing maturity as a statesman, citing that in his Second Inaugural Address ”we can detect no longer the rude or illiterate mould of a village lawyer’s thought, but find it replaced by a grasp of principle, a dignity of manner, and a solemnity of purpose.”
- Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. ”Abraham Lincoln.” The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Modern Library, 1940, pp.917-921.
- Fehrenbacker, Don E., ed. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859—1865. Vol. I and II. New York: Library of America-Viking Press, 1989.
- Mencken, H. L. ”Statesmen: Abraham Lincoln.” A Mencken Chrestomathy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949,pp. 221-223.
- Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper, 1977.
- Hurt, James. ”All the Living and the Dead: Lincoln’s Imagery.” American Literature 52.3 (1980): 351-380.
- Biography of Abraham Lincoln. The White House Online. Retrieved November 17, 2008, from http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/ al16.html.
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