Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln
Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln (and of Charles Darwin too; they were born within hours of each other). Given the bicentennial, it might be fitting and proper to explore some of Lincoln’s writings.
This blog has already shared the Gettysburg Address on another occasion; it is surely one of the greatest speeches ever given in the English language, and has few peers in any language. His Second Inaugural Address (Wikipedia article, with text) is another excellent and short piece of oratory, and is highly recommended. The peroration is a classic, and is probably familiar to many, even if they can’t place it:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
But many of Lincoln’s lesser-known speeches are likewise excellent. To select just one, I highly recommend an address that he delivered in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society on 30 September 1859. The speech as a whole is most excellent, and the full text is available here, among other places. The topic of the speech is progress, primarily technological, which in Lincoln’s day meant better plows, new fencing technology, railroads, canals, and the like. Again, the peroration is excellent, and alone was worth any admission price:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.
The above is a sentiment that I try to keep in mind. I also try to remember what Lincoln wrote circa 1854 about the nature and purpose of government:
The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, the government ought not to interfere.
Only John Stuart Mill has come close to so excellently summing up the raison d’être of government, and we’d be much better off if more shared the sentiment. In that same fragment, Lincoln concludes “it appears that if all men were just, there would be some, though not so much need of government.” (Cf. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”—Federalist No. 51) It is only with great regret that I omit the remainder of that item for purposes of space.
Another interesting short item contains Lincoln’s musing on slavery, again circa 1854, which seems to echo Kant’s categorical imperative, involving reasoning that can—and should—apply to far more than simply the peculiar institution:
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—
You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.
Finally, consider what is possibly the most extraordinary missive ever sent from a head of government to one of his generals in the field. In a letter dated 26 January 1863, shortly after General Joseph Hooker was given the most important command in the army at a pivotal point in the Civil War, Lincoln addressed him as follows:
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. … I hear, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. … Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories. Yours very truly
History shows that Hooker did not become dictator; despite being a good general, he didn’t live up to his potential as commander of the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by Gen. George Meade shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg.
In any event, I hope you will spend some time today to consider Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishments and what we each can do to achieve and cherish a just and lasting society, among ourselves, and with all nations.