Most people have a favorite Lincoln Speech and many have a favorite Lincoln phrase. For over a century the hands-down winner among the speeches has been the Gettysburg Address, partly because so many schoolchildren started memorizing it in the late 1800s.
As for the phrases, the most beloved of them all may come from the end of the Second Inaugural Address: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” For many people, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” from the end of the Gettysburg Address, and “the better angels of our nature,” the last words of the First Inaugural, have proven equally memorable.
What about Lincoln’s greatest paragraphs? We don’t usually think of him as having written in paragraph-length units. We see him as the craftsman of elegant speeches, or historic one-liners. Yet his longer addresses depended upon powerfully built paragraphs to construct rock-solid arguments. These speeches amounted to legal briefs designed to meet and refute all possible objections. The First Inaugural contains a succession of such paragraphs, subjecting the idea of secession to logical and historical demolition.
To my mind, the most exquisite Lincoln paragraphs come from speeches delivered before he was president. Not yet knowing that he was speaking for the ages, he could address his audiences less formally, and at greater length. He could indulge in tangents, and join satirical dismissal to dispassionate reason.
In his great speeches from 1854 to 1860, he built a meticulous case against slavery, and for the necessity of tolerating it where it was constitutionally protected. Tolerating it did not diminish his hatred for it. If anything, his middle-of-the-road acceptance of slavery (it might last another hundred years, he announced) drove him to greater rhetorical heights in denouncing it.
Two of Lincoln’s most scintillating paragraphs come from the same speech, his 26 June 1857 address in Springfield on the Dred Scott decision of that year. Responding to Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion — which denied Dred Scott his freedom and ruled that no black person, free or slave, could ever become a citizen — Lincoln heaped scorn on slavery’s backers.
They “have him [the slave] in his prison house,” cried Lincoln, in the concluding lines of a longer paragraph. “They have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.”
Later in the speech, Lincoln went after Taney’s claim that the authors of the Declaration of Independence excluded black people when they spoke of “all men” being created equal. On the contrary, said Lincoln, the authors plainly meant to include them. Of course they did not mean that all men, at present, were equal in every respect. But they were most assuredly equal in their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“This they said, and this they meant,” proclaimed Lincoln, toward the end of a paragraph on Taney and the Declaration. This section offers a discerning statement about how moral progress takes place over the long haul of history.
“They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, [and] it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.”