The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7


iSpeech

As very young men they had come to Illinois, Lincoln from
Indiana, Douglas from Vermont, and had grown up together in
public life, Douglas as a Democrat, Lincoln as a Whig. They had
met first in Vandalia, in 1834, when Lincoln was in the
Legislature and Douglas in the lobby; and again in 1836, both as
members of the Legislature. Douglas, a very able politician, of
the agile, combative, audacious, "pushing" sort, rose in
political distinction with remarkable rapidity. In quick
succession he became a member of the Legislature, a State's
attorney, secretary of state, a judge on the supreme bench of
Illinois, three times a Representative in Congress, and a Senator
of the United States when only thirty-nine years old. In the
National Democratic convention of 1852 he appeared even as an
aspirant to the nomination for the Presidency, as the favorite of
"young America," and received a respectable vote. He had far
outstripped Lincoln in what is commonly called political success
and in reputation. But it had frequently happened that in
political campaigns Lincoln felt himself impelled, or was
selected by his Whig friends, to answer Douglas's speeches; and
thus the two were looked upon, in a large part of the State at
least, as the representative combatants of their respective
parties in the debates before popular meetings. As soon,
therefore, as, after the passage of his Kansas-Nebraska Bill,
Douglas returned to Illinois to defend his cause before his
constituents, Lincoln, obeying not only his own impulse, but also
general expectation, stepped forward as his principal opponent.
Thus the struggle about the principles involved in the Kansas-
Nebraska Bill, or, in a broader sense, the struggle between
freedom and slavery, assumed in Illinois the outward form of a
personal contest between Lincoln and Douglas; and, as it
continued and became more animated, that personal contest in
Illinois was watched with constantly increasing interest by the
whole country. When, in 1858, Douglas's senatorial term being
about to expire, Lincoln was formally designated by the
Republican convention of Illinois as their candidate for the
Senate, to take Douglas's place, and the two contestants agreed
to debate the questions at issue face to face in a series of
public meetings, the eyes of the whole American people were
turned eagerly to that one point: and the spectacle reminded one
of those lays of ancient times telling of two armies, in battle
array, standing still to see their two principal champions fight
out the contested cause between the lines in single combat.

Lincoln had then reached the full maturity of his powers. His
equipment as a statesman did not embrace a comprehensive
knowledge of public affairs. What he had studied he had indeed
made his own, with the eager craving and that zealous tenacity
characteristic of superior minds learning under difficulties.
But his narrow opportunities and the unsteady life he had led
during his younger years had not permitted the accumulation of
large stores in his mind. It is true, in political campaigns he
had occasionally spoken on the ostensible issues between the
Whigs and the Democrats, the tariff, internal improvements,
banks, and so on, but only in a perfunctory manner. Had he ever
given much serious thought and study to these subjects, it is
safe to assume that a mind so prolific of original conceits as
his would certainly have produced some utterance upon them worth
remembering. His soul had evidently never been deeply stirred by
such topics. But when his moral nature was aroused, his brain
developed an untiring activity until it had mastered all the
knowledge within reach. As soon as the repeal of the Missouri
Compromise had thrust the slavery question into politics as the
paramount issue, Lincoln plunged into an arduous study of all its
legal, historical, and moral aspects, and then his mind became a
complete arsenal of argument. His rich natural gifts, trained by
long and varied practice, had made him an orator of rare
persuasiveness. In his immature days, he had pleased himself for
a short period with that inflated, high-flown style which, among
the uncultivated, passes for "beautiful speaking." His inborn
truthfulness and his artistic instinct soon overcame that
aberration and revealed to him the noble beauty and strength of
simplicity. He possessed an uncommon power of clear and compact
statement, which might have reminded those who knew the story of
his early youth of the efforts of the poor boy, when he copied
his compositions from the scraped wooden shovel, carefully to
trim his expressions in order to save paper. His language had
the energy of honest directness and he was a master of logical
lucidity. He loved to point and enliven his reasoning by
humorous illustrations, usually anecdotes of Western life, of
which he had an inexhaustible store at his command. These
anecdotes had not seldom a flavor of rustic robustness about
them, but he used them with great effect, while amusing the
audience, to give life to an abstraction, to explode an
absurdity, to clinch an argument, to drive home an admonition.
The natural kindliness of his tone, softening prejudice and
disarming partisan rancor, would often open to his reasoning a
way into minds most unwilling to receive it.

Yet his greatest power consisted in the charm of his
individuality. That charm did not, in the ordinary way, appeal
to the ear or to the eye. His voice was not melodious; rather
shrill and piercing, especially when it rose to its high treble
in moments of great animation. His figure was unhandsome, and
the action of his unwieldy limbs awkward. He commanded none of
the outward graces of oratory as they are commonly understood.
His charm was of a different kind. It flowed from the rare depth
and genuineness of his convictions and his sympathetic feelings.
Sympathy was the strongest element in his nature. One of his
biographers, who knew him before he became President, says:
"Lincoln's compassion might be stirred deeply by an object
present, but never by an object absent and unseen. In the former
case he would most likely extend relief, with little inquiry into
the merits of the case, because, as he expressed it himself, it
`took a pain out of his own heart.'" Only half of this is
correct. It is certainly true that he could not witness any
individual distress or oppression, or any kind of suffering,
without feeling a pang of pain himself, and that by relieving as
much as he could the suffering of others he put an end to his
own. This compassionate impulse to help he felt not only for
human beings, but for every living creature. As in his boyhood
he angrily reproved the boys who tormented a wood turtle by
putting a burning coal on its back, so, we are told, he would,
when a mature man, on a journey, dismount from his buggy and wade
waist-deep in mire to rescue a pig struggling in a swamp.
Indeed, appeals to his compassion were so irresistible to him,
and he felt it so difficult to refuse anything when his refusal
could give pain, that he himself sometimes spoke of his inability
to say "no" as a positive weakness. But that certainly does not
prove that his compassionate feeling was confined to individual
cases of suffering witnessed with his own eyes. As the boy was
moved by the aspect of the tortured wood turtle to compose an
essay against cruelty to animals in general, so the aspect of
other cases of suffering and wrong wrought up his moral nature,
and set his mind to work against cruelty, injustice, and
oppression in general.

As his sympathy went forth to others, it attracted others to him.
Especially those whom he called the "plain people" felt
themselves drawn to him by the instinctive feeling that he
understood, esteemed, and appreciated them. He had grown up
among the poor, the lowly, the ignorant. He never ceased to
remember the good souls he had met among them, and the many
kindnesses they had done him. Although in his mental development
he had risen far above them, he never looked down upon them. How
they felt and how they reasoned he knew, for so he had once felt
and reasoned himself. How they could be moved he knew, for so he
had once been moved himself and practised moving others. His
mind was much larger than theirs, but it thoroughly comprehended
theirs; and while he thought much farther than they, their
thoughts were ever present to him. Nor had the visible distance
between them grown as wide as his rise in the world would seem to
have warranted. Much of his backwoods speech and manners still
clung to him. Although he had become "Mr. Lincoln" to his later
acquaintances, he was still "Abe" to the "Nats" and "Billys" and
"Daves" of his youth; and their familiarity neither appeared
unnatural to them, nor was it in the least awkward to him. He
still told and enjoyed stories similar to those he had told and
enjoyed in the Indiana settlement and at New Salem. His wants
remained as modest as they had ever been; his domestic habits had
by no means completely accommodated themselves to those of his
more highborn wife; and though the "Kentucky jeans" apparel had
long been dropped, his clothes of better material and better make
would sit ill sorted on his gigantic limbs. His cotton umbrella,
without a handle, and tied together with a coarse string to keep
it from flapping, which he carried on his circuit rides, is said
to be remembered still by some of his surviving neighbors. This
rusticity of habit was utterly free from that affected contempt
of refinement and comfort which self-made men sometimes carry
into their more affluent circumstances. To Abraham Lincoln it
was entirely natural, and all those who came into contact with
him knew it to be so. In his ways of thinking and feeling he had
become a gentleman in the highest sense, but the refining process
had polished but little the outward form. The plain people,
therefore, still considered "honest Abe Lincoln" one of
themselves; and when they felt, which they no doubt frequently
did, that his thoughts and aspirations moved in a sphere above
their own, they were all the more proud of him, without any
diminution of fellow-feeling. It was this relation of mutual
sympathy and understanding between Lincoln and the plain people
that gave him his peculiar power as a public man, and singularly
fitted him, as we shall see, for that leadership which was
preeminently required in the great crisis then coming on,--the
leadership which indeed thinks and moves ahead of the masses, but
always remains within sight and sympathetic touch of them.

He entered upon the campaign of 1858 better equipped than he had
ever been before. He not only instinctively felt, but he had
convinced himself by arduous study, that in this struggle against
the spread of slavery he had right, justice, philosophy, the
enlightened opinion of mankind, history, the Constitution, and
good policy on his side. It was observed that after he began to
discuss the slavery question his speeches were pitched in a much
loftier key than his former oratorical efforts. While he
remained fond of telling funny stories in private conversation,
they disappeared more and more from his public discourse. He
would still now and then point his argument with expressions of
inimitable quaintness, and flash out rays of kindly humor and
witty irony; but his general tone was serious, and rose sometimes
to genuine solemnity. His masterly skill in dialectical thrust
and parry, his wealth of knowledge, his power of reasoning and
elevation of sentiment, disclosed in language of rare precision,
strength, and beauty, not seldom astonished his old friends.

Neither of the two champions could have found a more formidable
antagonist than each now met in the other. Douglas was by far
the most conspicuous member of his party. His admirers had dubbed
him "the Little Giant," contrasting in that nickname the
greatness of his mind with the smallness of his body. But though
of low stature, his broad-shouldered figure appeared uncommonly
sturdy, and there was something lion-like in the squareness of
his brow and jaw, and in the defiant shake of his long hair. His
loud and persistent advocacy of territorial expansion, in the
name of patriotism and "manifest destiny," had given him an
enthusiastic following among the young and ardent. Great natural
parts, a highly combative temperament, and long training had made
him a debater unsurpassed in a Senate filled with able men. He
could be as forceful in his appeals to patriotic feelings as he
was fierce in denunciation and thoroughly skilled in all the
baser tricks of parliamentary pugilism. While genial and
rollicking in his social intercourse--the idol of the "boys" he
felt himself one of the most renowned statesmen of his time, and
would frequently meet his opponents with an overbearing
haughtiness, as persons more to be pitied than to be feared. In
his speech opening the campaign of 1858, he spoke of Lincoln,
whom the Republicans had dared to advance as their candidate for
"his" place in the Senate, with an air of patronizing if not
contemptuous condescension, as "a kind, amiable, and intelligent
gentleman and a good citizen." The Little Giant would have been
pleased to pass off his antagonist as a tall dwarf. He knew
Lincoln too well, however, to indulge himself seriously in such a
delusion. But the political situation was at that moment in a
curious tangle, and Douglas could expect to derive from the
confusion great advantage over his opponent.

By the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, opening the Territories
to the ingress of slavery, Douglas had pleased the South, but
greatly alarmed the North. He had sought to conciliate Northern
sentiment by appending to his Kansas-Nebraska Bill the
declaration that its intent was "not to legislate slavery into
any State or Territory, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave
the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their
institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution
of the United States." This he called "the great principle of
popular sovereignty." When asked whether, under this act, the
people of a Territory, before its admission as a State, would
have the right to exclude slavery, he answered, "That is a
question for the courts to decide." Then came the famous "Dred
Scott decision," in which the Supreme Court held substantially
that the right to hold slaves as property existed in the
Territories by virtue of the Federal Constitution, and that this
right could not be denied by any act of a territorial government.
This, of course, denied the right of the people of any Territory
to exclude slavery while they were in a territorial condition,
and it alarmed the Northern people still more. Douglas
recognized the binding force of the decision of the Supreme
Court, at the same time maintaining, most illogically, that his
great principle of popular sovereignty remained in force
nevertheless. Meanwhile, the proslavery people of western
Missouri, the so-called "border ruffians," had invaded Kansas,
set up a constitutional convention, made a constitution of an
extreme pro-slavery type, the "Lecompton Constitution," refused
to submit it fairly to a vote of the people of Kansas, and then
referred it to Congress for acceptance,--seeking thus to
accomplish the admission of Kansas as a slave State. Had Douglas
supported such a scheme, he would have lost all foothold in the
North. In the name of popular sovereignty he loudly declared his
opposition to the acceptance of any constitution not sanctioned
by a formal popular vote. He "did not care," he said, "whether
slavery be voted up or down," but there must be a fair vote of
the people. Thus he drew upon himself the hostility of the
Buchanan administration, which was controlled by the proslavery
interest, but he saved his Northern following. More than this,
not only did his Democratic admirers now call him "the true
champion of freedom," but even some Republicans of large
influence, prominent among them Horace Greeley, sympathizing with
Douglas in his fight against the Lecompton Constitution, and
hoping to detach him permanently from the proslavery interest and
to force a lasting breach in the Democratic party, seriously
advised the Republicans of Illinois to give up their opposition
to Douglas, and to help re-elect him to the Senate. Lincoln was
not of that opinion. He believed that great popular movements
can succeed only when guided by their faithful friends, and that
the antislavery cause could not safely be entrusted to the
keeping of one who "did not care whether slavery be voted up or
down." This opinion prevailed in Illinois; but the influences
within the Republican party over which it prevailed yielded only
a reluctant acquiescence, if they acquiesced at all, after having
materially strengthened Douglas's position. Such was the
situation of things when the campaign of 1858 between Lincoln and
Douglas began.

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