Abraham Lincoln knew himself well—something we seldom allow for and perhaps do not want in a great man. It is harder to feel a legitimate pride in our own understanding when the hero has been there first. “My mind,” Lincoln wrote to a friend, “is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” But his self-knowledge was not confined to smaller traits. At a low moment in the mid-1850s, he made an entry in a notebook comparing his apparent fate of obscurity to the fortunes of his rival Stephen Douglas. The two, Lincoln recalled, had started out in politics at the same time:
We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me,the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, even, in foreign lands. I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached. So reached, that the oppressed of my species, might have shared with me in the elevation, I would rather stand on that eminence, than wear the richest crown that ever pressed a monarch’s brow.
A shade of the public voice is audible, even here; the intimacy looks beyond itself. His hope of performing some lasting good for “the oppressed of my species” is mixed with his deepest sense of who he is. He consoles himself for the defeat of his ambition with a regret that Douglas achieved his eminence without laying the groundwork for a genuine legacy. Douglas has served only himself—under the banner of “popular sovereignty,” a cause without a principle—so that any good he does will terminate in himself.
A lull in one’s middle years can seem the harbinger of lasting defeat. Probably Lincoln would not have written like this a few years earlier, for his political career, through his twenties and thirties, had been in fact a prodigious success. In 1832, at the age of twenty-three, he made his first run for office to represent New Salem in the Illinois legislature. Though defeated, he proved his popularity in another way by being elected captain of his company in the Black Hawk War. On a second try in 1834, he became one out of four elected from a slate of thirteen. Much of the following year he devoted to the study of law; and when he passed the bar two years later, he moved to Springfield. He was reelected three times to a seat in the state house, in 1836, 1838, and 1840; and he turned down chances to run for governor in 1841 and 1844—a quest he saw as futile in a state that was mainly Democratic.
Lincoln made friends easily and was admired for his energy and political acumen; but though congenial and never fractious, he was by no means a moderate. Holding firm to the Whig policy for internal improvements, a national bank, and a high protective tariff, he also voted against the 77–6 majority in the state legislature that condemned abolition societies and affirmed slaveholding as a sacred American right. Of the six dissenters, Lincoln was one of two to lodge a formal protest: slavery, he said, was “founded on both injustice and bad policy.” In 1843, he ran against John Hardin and Edward Baker for a seat in the United States Congress, and, in the course of being defeated by Hardin, laid up his stores for a future victory by arranging a party resolution that Baker would be their next candidate. The idea of a rotation was thus introduced. When, after Hardin and Baker had served their terms, Hardin decided to run again, Lincoln pressed the reminder of their honorable agreement to such embarrassing effect that Hardin withdrew.
His own term in Congress, starting in 1847—the only national office he would hold before becoming president—spanned the confused middle and the divisive end of the Mexican War. What was remarkable about Lincoln’s service was his full-scale indictment of that war. And this was a portent. His speech in Congress on the war, cited by Richard Carwardine in Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, revealed a passion against injustice that defied the commoner loyalties of nationalism; it showed a different side from the tactical mastery that would characterize his politics through most of the 1850s. Here, he spoke unmistakably about the sort of republic he thought the United States ought not to become. He believed that President Polk, by means of false reports and rumors, had dragged the country into a war of choice; that it had been provoked and begun by Americans, with the popular panic and bloodthirstiness of a powerful nation hunting a smaller nation it knew it could conquer; that the President and the war party had employed every stratagem of sophistical and lawless argument to justify a corrupt policy.
The heart of this speech of January 12, 1848, is a series of questions about the causes of the war. Lincoln asks the President to answer
fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts, and not with arguments. Let him remember he sits where Washington sat, and so remembering, let him answer, as Washington would answer…. And if, so answering, he can show that the soil was ours, where the first blood of the war was shed—that it was not within an inhabited country, or, if within such, that the inhabitants had submitted themselves to the civil authority of Texas, or of the United States…then I am with him for his justification….
But if he can not, or will not do this—if on any pretence, or no pretence, he shall refuse or omit it, then I shall be fully convinced, of what I more than suspect already, that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong…that originally having some strong motive—what, I will not stop now to give my opinion concerning—to involve the two countries in a war, and trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory…he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where.
Little has been made of this speech because it does not fit the usual story. Lincoln holds his place in history and fable as the American president who guided the country through our Civil War; and, secondarily, as the man who took a stand on a principle—a consistent idea with vote-getting power—in order to associate his party with a simple policy: no expansion of slavery. It is unsettling to find that he was also a political thinker who warned his country against a change of character from republic to empire.
The early 1850s are comparatively hidden years for Lincoln, a time in which he established himself in a prosperous Illinois law practice. He gave a well-formed eulogy on Henry Clay and a solid speech against Stephen Douglas, but the public moments in this period have dwindled to a thread. “I was losing interest in politics,” he said in the personal sketch he wrote in 1859, “when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.” The Missouri Compromise of 1820 would have barred slavery in both Kansas and Nebraska and other northern territories. Its repeal was part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, engineered by Douglas, which allowed people in those two territories to decide whether to allow slavery or not, thus opening the West to slave owners. Douglas’s success sealed his reputation for short-term maneuvering, but it brought Lincoln into the field against him. That much certainly was “well known”; but one other circumstance has never been sufficiently noticed. Lincoln had his eye on a run for the Senate as early as 1854, and in 1855 he fell just shy of the numbers needed to gain the Whig nomination. With a magnanimity that would not be forgotten, he ceded his large plurality of votes to Lyman Trumbull, who had begun with only a handful. Trumbull went on to be elected, and from 1860 he would be a valuable ally of Lincoln’s.
The major speeches leading to his run for the presidency dealt with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and the events of “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856 and 1857 that followed from the legislative and the judicial disaster. Kansas was the chosen ground for a savage contest between slavery and antislavery forces. It climaxed in the Pottawatomie massacre by John Brown, and closed farcically with the rigged passage of a pro-slavery state constitution that brought discredit on President James Buchanan when he endorsed it. The shortest and most controversial of Lincoln’s speeches in this crisis, the House Divided speech of 1858, came close to defining the platform of the Republican Party. Then, in February 1860, as Carwardine reminds us, he added the Cooper Union speech—a work of constitutional scholarship as well as a political declaration, on which he had labored for weeks to clarify the views of the American founders on slavery. The last of these addresses served as Lincoln’s audition for the eastern grandees of the party; his power of utterance and self-command gave the proof they wanted of a politician of national stature.
He came to be known by shorter speeches, too, given at Columbus, Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Edwardsville, where he expounded the limits of popular sovereignty and the ideas of the founders on liberty and equality. A famous lost speech, as Carwardine points out, was an extemporaneous “stem-winder” made on request, to conclude the state convention at Bloomington, Illinois, in May 1856, which marked the founding of the Republican Party of that state. William Herndon, Lincoln’s friend and law partner, said in his Life that the Bloomington speech conveyed in a single pulse of thought “justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong.” Lincoln here offered a direct and principled indictment of slavery in the course of explaining the purpose of a free republic. To judge by other descriptions, it was the connecting link between his protest against the Mexican War and the Special Message to Congress of July 4, 1861, where he would say of the war against the slave power: “This is essentially a People’s contest.”
Yet these separate performances, for all their unexampled skill and force, contributed less to Lincoln’s national reputation than the seven debates with Douglas in the 1858 Senate contest in Illinois. There the candidates sounded the issues of the day with an intensity that had no precursor in American politics and that has had no successor thus far. Sixty speeches were made by each and ten thousand miles traversed between them, Carwardine reckons, “by rail, river, and road” in Illinois. Lincoln lost the election but, most surprisingly, won the popular vote against the man who made “popular sovereignty” his theme and slogan. The earlier speeches of the 1850s had now paid off in a larger theater. They formed a basis for the retorts and interrogatories that turned Lincoln’s side of the argument into a continuous display of a political mind in action. But as Doris Kearns Goodwin observes in Team of Rivals, her comprehensive history of Lincoln and his war cabinet, it was his argument in the Kansas-Nebraska speech that gave the clue to his subsequent thinking. Read the debates with Douglas and the Cooper Union speech and even the longer speeches of his presidency, and what you encounter again and again are variations on an argument he first broached in Peoria in 1854.