Two Speeches on Race

Of the two speeches discussed here, Senator Barack Obama’s speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, is available at and Abraham Lincoln’s at the Cooper Union in New York on February 27, 1860, is available at

Two men, two speeches. The men, both lawyers, both from Illinois, were seeking the presidency, despite what seemed their crippling connection with extremists. Each was young by modern standards for a president. Abraham Lincoln had turned fifty-one just five days before delivering his speech. Barack Obama was forty-six when he gave his. Their political experience was mainly provincial, in the Illinois legislature for both of them, and they had received little exposure at the national level—two years in the House of Representatives for Lincoln, four years in the Senate for Obama. Yet each was seeking his party’s nomination against a New York senator of longer standing and greater prior reputation—Lincoln against Senator William Seward, Obama against Senator Hillary Clinton. They were both known for having opposed an initially popular war—Lincoln against President Polk’s Mexican War, raised on the basis of a fictitious provocation; Obama against President Bush’s Iraq War, launched on false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and had made an alliance with Osama bin Laden.

Neither man fit the conventions of a statesman in his era. Lincoln, thin, gangling, and unkempt, was considered a backwoods rube, born in the frontier conditions of Kentucky, estranged from his father, limited to a catch-as-catch-can education. He was better known as a prairie raconteur than as a legal theorist or prose stylist. Obama, of mixed race and foreign upbringing, had barely known his father, and looked suspiciously “different.”

The most damaging charge against each was an alleged connection with unpatriotic and potentially violent radicals. Lincoln’s Republican Party was accused of supporting abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who burned the Constitution, or John Brown, who took arms against United States troops, or those who rejected the Supreme Court because of its Dred Scott decision. Obama was suspected of Muslim associations and of following the teachings of an inflammatory preacher who damned the United States. How to face such charges? Each decided to address them openly in a prominent national venue, well before their parties’ nominating conventions—Lincoln at the Cooper Union in New York, Obama at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.


Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln followed a threefold strategy in his speech, arguing (1) that he was more observant of the Constitution than were his critics, and (2) that Republicans were more conservative than their foes (here he addressed the John Brown issue), and (3) that he was not opposed to the judgment of the Supreme Court but to its information (here he addressed the Dred Scott issue).

The Constitution

Making a refrain of Stephen Douglas’s contention that “the fathers” understood slavery “as well as, or better than, we do,” Lincoln admitted that the Constitution made it impossible for the federal government to tamper with slavery where it existed, in the states. But Douglas and others imported into the Constitution a prohibition of their own invention—against federal control of slavery in territories not yet admitted as states. With lawyerly precision Lincoln proved that—before, during, and after framing the Constitution—“the fathers” did actually…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.