The Wisdom Library invites you on a journey through the lives and works of the world’s greatest thinkers and leaders. Compiled by scholars, this series presents excerpts from the most important and revealing writings of the most remarkable minds of all time.
THE WISDOM OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Politician. Statesman. Civil rights leader. Literary craftsman. For a century and a half, the life—and words—of 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, have been praised as a shining example of American leadership. But Lincoln’s path to greatness was a humble one. The son of a frontier farmer, Lincoln was largely self-educated. When he took the national stage as a politician, his simple, straightforward prose was revolutionary for its time—resonating with men and women from all walks of life. In fact, with his “jogtrot prose, compacted of words and phrases still with the bark on,” Lincoln almost single-handedly changed the way the English language is spoken in America. And while he will always be remembered as the man dedicated to restoring a shattered Union, and—with the Thirteenth Amendment—freeing slaves, Lincoln was also one of the greatest communicators this country has ever seen. Now, in this one essential volume, excerpts have been collected from all of Lincoln’s finest documents, letters, and, of course, speeches like his famous Gettysburg Address. The Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln pays tribute to the president and patriot who, through both his words and deeds, changed the course of history.
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Abraham Lincoln was first and foremost a politician. Handicapped by his humble origins and a meager education, yet blessed with tremendous rhetorical ability and boundless patriotism, Lincoln led the Republican Party to national prominence during the most tumultuous period of American history. His ungainly appearance made a poor first impression, but he won support by his passionate speeches that could go on for three hours or longer. He shot to national prominence in a series of debates with political foe Stephen Douglas. In countless letters to political allies and enemies alike, Lincoln distinguished himself as a tireless proponent for those issues that he held most dearly, which he summed up as "gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity."
From Lincoln's reputed first political speech, delivered in Pappsville, Illinois.
I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the Legislature. My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman's dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvement system, and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected, I shall be thankful; if not it will all be the same.
(NH XI, 97)
June 13, 1836
A letter to the editor of the Sangamo Journal, written during Lincoln's campaign for a second term in the Illinois legislature.
I go for all sharing the privileges of the government, who assist in bearing its burthens. Consequently I go for admitting all whites to the right of suffrage who pay taxes or bear arms (by no means excluding females).
If elected, I shall consider the whole people of Sangamon my constituents, as well those that oppose, as those that support me.
While acting as their representative, I shall be governed by their will, on all subjects upon which I have the means of knowing what their will is; and upon all others, I shall do what my own judgment teaches me will best advance their interests. Whether elected or not, I go for distributing the proceeds of the sales of the public lands to the several states, to enable our state, in common with others, to dig canals and construct railroads, without borrowing money and paying interest on it.
(CW I, 48)
January 27, 1838
Young Men's Lyceum speech, delivered in Springfield, Illinois. (See Appendix A for complete text)
In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American people, find ... ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them; they are a legacy bequeathed us by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed, race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves us, of this goodly land, and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only to transmit these — the former unprofaned by the foot of an invader, the latter undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation — to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.
(NH I, 35-36)
January 27, 1838
Young Men's Lyceum speech.
Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity 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 '76 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 charter 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 sexes and tongues and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
(NH I, 42-43)
January 27, 1838
Young Men's Lyceum speech.
Reason — cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason — must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and laws; and that we improved to the last, that we remained free to the last, that we revered his name to the last, that during his long sleep we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place, shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our Washington.
(NH I, 50)
January 28, 1838
From the Young Men's Lyceum Address, Lincoln's view on the current danger to American government.
That our government should have been maintained in its original form, from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed and crumbled away. Through that period it was felt by all to be an undecided experiment; now it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame and distinction expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it; their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition which had hitherto been considered at best no better than problematical — namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties, and cities, and rivers, and mountains; and to be revered and sung, toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves, and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful, and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true that with the catching end the pleasures of the chase.
(NH I, 45-46)
December 20, 1839
From a speech in the Illinois House of Representatives.
Many countries have lost their liberty, and ours may lose hers; but if she shall, be it my proudest plume, not that I was the last to desert, but that I never deserted her.
(NH I, 137)
December 20, 1839
From a speech in the Illinois House of Representatives.
If ever I feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not wholly unworthy of its almighty Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country, deserted by all the world beside, and I standing up boldly and alone, and hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors. Here, without contemplating consequences, before high heaven and in the face of the world, I swear eternal fidelity to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of my life, my liberty, and my love.
(NH I, 138)
February 22, 1842
Comment to a friend regarding a speech he had just delivered to a temperance society on the anniversary of George Washington's birth.
I have just told the folks here in Springfield on this 110th anniversary of the birth of him whose name, mightiest in the cause of civil liberty, still mightiest in the cause of moral reformation, we mention in solemn awe, in naked, deathless splendor, that the one victory we can claim is that there is not one slave or one drunkard on the face of God's green earth.
(NH I, 191-92)
February 15, 1845
Lincoln's opinion on Executive's right to declare war without the consent of Congress.
The provision of the Constitution giving war-making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our president where kings have always stood.
(CW I, 451-52)
December 1, 1847
During a tariff discussion, prior to taking his seat in Congress.
It seems to be an opinion very generally entertained that the condition of a nation is best whenever it can buy cheapest; but this is not necessarily true, because if at the same time and by the same cause, it is compelled to sell correspondingly cheap, nothing is gained. Then it is said the best condition is when we can buy cheapest and sell dearest; but this again is not necessarily true, because with both these we might have scarcely anything to sell, or, which is the same thing, to buy with.
(NH I, 304)
January 12, 1848
Lincoln argued that President James K. Polk's invasion and seizure of lands in the Mexican War was unconstitutional.
When the war began, it was my opinion that all those who, because of knowing too little, or because of knowing too much, could not conscientiously approve the conduct of the president, in the beginning of it, should, nevertheless, as good citizens and patriots, remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended. ... I carefully examined the president's messages, to ascertain what he himself had said and proved upon the point. The result of this examination was to make the impression, that taking for true, all the president states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the president would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him. ...
His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature, on a burning surface, finding no position, on which it can settle down, and be at ease. ... As I have said before, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscience, more painful than all his mental perplexity!
(CW I, 432-42)
February 13, 1848
Lincoln on the Electoral College.
I was once of your opinion, expressed in your letter, that presidential electors should be dispensed with, but a more thorough knowledge of the causes that first introduced them has made me doubt. The causes were briefly these. The convention that framed the Constitution had this difficulty: that small states wished to so form the new government as that they might be equal to the large ones, regardless of the inequality of population; the large ones insisted on equality in proportion to population. They compromised it by basing the House of Representatives on population, and the Senate on states regardless of population, and the execution of both principles by electors in each state, equal in number to her Senators and Representatives.
(NH I, 356)
February 15, 1848
Opinion on the constitutionality of President Polk's seizure of territory during the Mexican War.
That soil was not ours; and Congress did not annex or attempt to annex it. ... Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose — and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of the British invading us" but he will say to you "be silent; I see it, if you don't."
(CW I, 451)
June 20, 1848
From a speech in the House of Representatives.
The true rule in determining to embrace or reject anything, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.
(CW I, 484)
June 20, 1848
Lincoln's opinion on Constitutional amendments.
As a general rule, I think we would much better let it alone. No slight occasion should tempt us to touch it. Better not take the first step, which may lead to a habit of altering it. Better, rather, habituate ourselves to think of it as unalterable. It can scarcely be made better than it is. New provisions would introduce new difficulties, and thus create and increase appetite for further change. No sir, let it stand as it is. New hands have never touched it. The men who made it have done their work, and have passed away. Who shall improve on what they did?
(CW I, 488)
July 25, 1850
From a eulogy for President Zachary Taylor.
I will not pretend to believe that all the wisdom, or all the patriotism of the country, died with General Taylor. But we know that wisdom and patriotism, in a public office, under institutions like ours, are wholly inefficient and worthless, unless they are sustained by the confidence and devotion of the people.
(CW II, 89)
July 16, 1852
Introduction to a eulogy for Henry Clay, delivered at the State House in Springfield, Illinois. Clay was the author of the Missouri Compromise and was a major influence on Lincoln's political outlook.
On the fourth day of July, 1776, the people of a few feeble and oppressed colonies of Great Britain, inhabiting a portion of the Atlantic coast of North America, publicly declared their national independence, and made their appeal to the justice of their cause and to the God of battles for the maintenance of that declaration. That people were few in number and without resources, save only their wise heads and stout hearts. Within the first year of that declared independence, and while its maintenance was yet problematical — while the bloody struggle between those resolute rebels and their haughty would-be masters was still waging — of undistinguished parents and in an obscure district of one of those colonies Henry Clay was born. The infant nation and the infant child began the race of life together. For three quarters of a century they have traveled hand in hand. They have been companions ever. The nation has passed its perils, and it is free, prosperous, and powerful. The child has reached his manhood, his middle age, his old age, and is dead. In all that has concerned the nation the man ever sympathized; and now the nation mourns the man.
(NH II, 155-56)
July 16, 1852
From the eulogy for Henry Clay.
It is probably true he owed his preeminence to no one quality, but to a fortunate combination of several. He was surpassingly eloquent; but many eloquent men fail utterly, and they are not, as a class, generally successful. His judgment was excellent; but many men of good judgment live and die unnoticed. His will was indomitable; but this quality often secures to its owner nothing better than a character for useless obstinacy. These, then, were Mr. Clay's leading qualities. No one of them is very uncommon; but all together are rarely combined in a single individual, and this is probably the reason why such men as Henry Clay are so rare in the world. ...(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Wisdom Of Abraham Lincoln"
Copyright © 2004 Kees de Mooy.
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Table of Contents
Timeline of Abraham Lincoln's Life, with Significant Historical Events,
PART I - Politics,
Legislator and Congressman,
Anecdotes and Stories,
PART II - Civil War,
The Road to Fort Sumter,
War Between the States,
Peace and Reconstruction,
PART III - Slavery and Emancipation,
PART IV - PrÃvate Life,