From the first words spoken in The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions (1838) to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865) twenty seven years have elapsed from the more radical Lincoln into a polished speaker and moving president. Although Lincoln can be interpreted as a waffler of sorts, the content of what Lincoln had to say never changed, he just altered the context in which he discussed his opposition for slavery in all and any form.
Lincoln’s opposition to slavery rests heavily within The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions, a speech that he gave in 1838. Within this speech, Lincoln calls for a unification of the people against the abhorrent conditions of slavery and its perpetuation. But what really stands out in the address that he is making is his desire for a nation to stand, unified, against forces that oppose the intent of the founders and the static document of which they bestowed upon the people for their own securities against repression and tyranny. Lincoln says,
“The question recurs ‘how shall we fortify against it?’ The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher of his prosperity, 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 the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and 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. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap- let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;- let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;- let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all the sexes and tongues, and the colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its alters.”
– Cummings, P.288
When Lincoln speaks these words, it is almost as though he is speaking with the knowledge of a future not yet destined to be. But within his words, a feeling of absolution resonates. A foresight that one may acquire with knowledge of the past and the destiny of that past to become repetitious. A repetitious force within history is arguable, but systematically feasible. Lincoln understood the repetitious systematic pattern of history as well as the systematic structure of oppression within slavery and took a feat, unattainable by many, to conquer the structure that has perpetuated much misery. 177 years have elapsed from today’s date; Lincoln set his agenda to unify a nation against the tyranny and oppression of slavery and yet, what he said those almost 200 years ago could be repeated to the people of our time, to incite a new revolution against tyranny and oppression that so many face today within this marvelous nation.
Reading Lincoln’s, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions through the modern lens is astounding. I could not believe the amount of what Lincoln said as still pertaining to the conditions of this nation today. I implore you to take a moment to re-read this moving speech through the lens of our time. Read it out loud. You will hear the power and passion of this sometimes revered, sometimes not, president. Now I know that there are people that will disagree with me, I respect that. People disagreed with Lincoln, but remember that Lincoln did not quit nor become quiet to the problems that the nation faced, but rather he decided to take action, he called for action from others, to improve the conditions of all men and their right to the fruits of the labor that they produce.
I must now take a moment to evaluate the other moments in history that Lincoln shared with the people of this nation, his passion to right wrongs being inflicted upon a population without much, if any, opportunity to escape the perpetual system of oppression. As history unfolds, Lincoln becomes a powerful speaker. Powerful in the sense that he had a way to change the way that he said things to become more palatable and accepted within a nation that did not want to hear what he had to say. Twenty-two years elapse before he takes office as president of the United States and the way that Lincoln spoke to the people changed within that time. He did not become more charismatic, but rather he learned what it was that the people wanted and he used that to his advantage (in my estimation). In the Speech on the Dred Scott Decision (1857), the way that Lincoln spoke to the people is different than that of his revolutionary address in The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions. Although he had not changed his stance on slavery and its abolition, the way that he speaks of abolition has changed drastically. Lincoln says,
“I had thought the Declaration promised something better than the conditions of British subjects; but no, it only meant that we should be equal to them in their own oppressed and unequal condition. According to that, it gave no promise that having kicked off the King and Lord of Great Britain, we should not at once be saddled with a King and Lords of our own.
I thought the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere; but no, it merely ‘was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connections within the mother country.’ Why, that object having been effected some eighty years ago, the Declaration is of no practical use now- mere rubbish- old wadding left to rot on the battlefield after the victory is won.”
The difference that I am pointing to within these different quotations are not as noticeable as one may assume, for there is a distinct difference in the context in which Lincoln presents his position of slavery. In this piece from the Dred Scott decision he regresses historically to present his listeners with a compelling argument to further reinforce that the revolutionary war was not fought to repeat the oppression of Great Britain within this new nation, but rather to build a new nation on the premise that what was held in reverence of the “mother land” are the same conditions that are to be remembered but not repeated within the new country. Lincoln points to liberty as a condition afforded all within this nation and without it we, the people of this new nation, are just the same if not worse than the tyrannical leaders of Great Britain.
In Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address (1861), he remains of the past sentiment. Although his language has changed, he has not deviated from his ultimate goal that he discussed in 1838, in The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions. Rather, Lincoln lays out his presidential aspirations of his newly elected position. He calms the masses, if you will, in regard to the abolition of slavery and the executive order by saying, “… I only impress upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is susceptible, that the property, peace, and security of no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming administration (Cummings, P.296). He’s also reassuring the slave-owning population that he will not become the one to fear in regards to their economic security. This tactic that Lincoln utilizes as a form of reassurance to an uneasy populous is quite impressive. The alteration in the way that he directs his attention, still, to change he uses persuasive measures and some manipulation to convince a nation that his only intent is to uphold the content of the Declaration and Constitution. Lincoln continues to break down what it is that he will be doing while in office as the President of the United States. He wants to unify the nation; to eliminate the division of North and South, for without unity division will precipitate future and further divisions of one nation. The agenda of President Lincoln can be interpreted differently by different perspectives, but he makes his initiative very clear when he states in his First Inaugural Address,
“…And finally in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was ‘to form a more perfect Union.’
But if the destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.
It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union: that resolves and ordinances to the effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.
I therefore consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken: and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part; and I shall perform it so far as practicable, unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means, or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust that this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.”
In this excerpt Lincoln is advocating for a civil and humane method to eliminate slavery and reunify the nation. Although there are some (many) that oppose Lincoln’s presidential goals and aspirations, he decides, through a significant amount of time that what he stands for, abolition of slavery, is of great value. The value of abolition is not only in regard to the instruments that are used to oppress a people that were given no alternative, the of freedom for the slaves their selves is a great value for both slaves and the nation, but a value is also associated to a divided nation that will inevitably crumble when the division becomes more defined if the abolition of slavery does not occur.
I have found that through the reading of Lincoln’s famous and moving speeches he addressed the issues of the nation in a progressive fashion. Not progressive in the notion of change, but rather progressive in his methodology to convince an ideologically warring nation to come to a collective and acceptable solution to abolishing slavery. Although his words and approach changed through the time progression of these speeches, his message remained very clear and unwavering and he also gave peaceful solutions to the conflict between the North and the South. I must ask, what would this nation look like if we did not have a civil war? If the people of this time compromised and followed the plan that Lincoln and his administration created to resolve and abolish slavery for good?