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1. Philip Van Doren Stern writes in his "Life of Abraham Lincoln, "There is only one way to understand this man as a person and as a force in history. No amount of reading biographical accounts of him will give the whole picture; no study of history will give as complete an understanding of his curiously complex personality as well as his own words do" (P4). After having read both Van Doren Stern's and the writings of Lincoln himself, do you agree with Van Doren Stern's claim that Lincoln's own words provide the most insight into his character?
2. Given that Lincoln was in many ways a conservative man, does the fact that early on his career he endorsed women's suffrage (see p. 225, Announcement of Political Views, June 13, 1836) surprise you? If not, why?
3. Lincoln historians consider the letters Lincoln wrote to Mary Owens and the one he wrote to Mrs. 0. H. Browning describing his failed courtship of Mary Owens to be deeply revealing. Van Doren Stern calls the one to Mrs. Browning a "cruel letter, ridiculing the woman he had once considered worthy of being his wife, " but also "one of the most intimate and self-revelatory documents Lincoln ever wrote. It shows his indecision, his lack of ability to judge others, and, more than any other bit of Lincoln's writing, it offers a key to the psychological puzzle of his attitude toward women and marriage" (p. 24). Do you concur with Van Doren Stern's assessment of what the letter shows about Lincoln?
4. How persuasive do you find the speech considered by many to be Lincoln's first great address (the reply to Douglas, on the implicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise effected by thepassage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, at Peoria, Illinois, on 16 October 1854)? Identify and consider the effectiveness of his rhetorical strategies. He argues at one point, for example, that the claim made by Southerners that they should be permitted to take slaves into Nebraska just like they would be allowed to take hogs "is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and Negroes." However, he continues, while you thus require me to deny the humanity of the Negro, I wish to ask whether you of the South, yourselves, have ever been willing to do as much? It is kindly provided that of all those who come into the world only a small percentage are natural tyrants. That percentage is no larger in the slave States than in the free. The great majority South, as well as North, have human sympathies, of which they can no more divest themselves than they can of their sensibility to physical pain (p. 360). How do you imagine a Southerner might have answered this?
5. In denouncing slavery in the Peoria speech, Lincoln appeals a number of times to the Declaration of Independence and in particular to its founding principle that it is a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. Yet he also states that he would not be for freeing slaves and making them the political and social equal of whites ["My feelings will not admit this" (p. 349)], and at another point, right after invoking the Declaration of Independence, he says "Let it not be said that I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks. I have already said the contrary" (P 363). He clearly thinks there is no contradiction in his position. Is there? Why do you think he believes his position is sound?
6. Lincoln states at one point in his Peoria speech that he would accept the extension of slavery if it would save the Union ["Well, I too go for saving the Union. Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any great evil to avoid a greater one" (P 368)]. How do you think Lincoln might have justified his claim that the dissolution of the Union would be a greater evil than the expansion of slavery?
7. Compare the first speech addressing the issue of slavery to later ones [e. g., August 27, 1856, at Kalamazoo, Michigan (PP 400 to 407); July 10, 1858, at Chicago (PP. 440 to 451); his repliesrejoindersopening speeches in the Lincoln-Douglas debates (pp. 462 to 532); February 27, 186o, at the Cooper Institute, New York]. Do you see any differences in his views over time? Does he change his approach to the problem of slavery or propose new ways of resolving it? Does his speaking style change? If so, in what ways?
8. According to Douglas B. Wilson in Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln was a confirmed fatalist from his earliest days (likely owing to his Baptist upbringing with its Calvinistic roots), and believed that human beings did not control their own destinies. How does this fatalism manifest itself in his letters and speeches? Can his belief in predestination be squared with his ambition, his desire to better himself, his will to succeed, and his belief that human beings are responsible for their actions? (Wilson notes that among the fundamentalists Lincoln grew up with, there were some who objected to reform programs like the temperance movement, but that Lincoln wasn't one of them.)
9. In his message to the Congress in a special session on July 4, 1861, the President states in discussing the Civil War that the issue of war versus dissolution of the country "embraces more than the fate of these United States, " that "it forces us to ask . . .- 'Must a [democratic] government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?' " (p. 668). Is there in all democracies, as Lincoln himself puts it, this "inherent and fatal weakness"?
Posted August 16, 2012
Posted August 2, 2012
Posted August 2, 2012