(This column appears in the forthcoming March 2009 issue of The American Spectator.)
You have Gettysburg Address partisans, you have Second Inaugural fans. The Lincoln canon contains so much of which the American language is made that you have an embarrassment of riches. Personally I rather like the First Inaugural. It tends to be neglected, relegated to the shadow of the great wartime pronouncements and the tragic majesty of the Second. But look at how American it is.
Whenever the mind wanders and questions the virtues of the American language — as compared to the Chinese or the French, say — you are well advised to remember the admonitions of the nation’s best teacher of rhetoric, William Strunk, the author of The Elements of Style, saved for posterity by his student E. B. White, himself a very fine writer. “Be specific!” White remembers his teacher repeating over and over. That is American rhetoric. That is Lincoln’s style.
In March 1861, with several states already organized in a new Confederacy, there was no time to lose. “I do not consider it necessary, at present, for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety, or excitement,” the new president states right off, and cuts to the only issue that matters and the only one he will discuss on this day: “I have no purpose,” he says, quoting an earlier speech, “directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
In the First Inaugural, as ever, Abraham Lincoln is anything but abstract. When he refers, at the end of this speech, to the “better angels of our nature,” he is not being vague and mystical, but concluding with a charming flourish the closely reasoned argument he has offered — principally to his adversaries — for maintaining the constitutional structure that makes all else possible.
There is no sophistry or generality in the First Inaugural. It makes the case forcefully (but amicably) for the inviolability of the Constitution and the impossibility of secession. It can be amended, of course, but it cannot be ripped up and the states cannot break up the union of which it is the cement, and he, as chief magistrate duly sworn, will see to it that this is enforced. You cannot get more specific.
Abraham Lincoln is called the Emancipator. He saved the Union, increased the sum total of freedom, advanced the very concept of democracy in the United States and the world. But his very first words as president referred specifically to the institution of slavery in order to deny any intention to touch it.
Bizarre? Not at all: realistic. Or as a good rhetorician would say, specific. What Lincoln perceived, quite early in his life, was that slavery was an abomination that, if allowed to persist, would subvert the experiment in liberty represented by the United States.
Lincoln believed slavery must end, but he also believed the most likely instrument for ending it was the Union, imperfect to be sure but ever capable of improving upon its founding axioms of liberty and political equality. Lincoln adopted Daniel Webster’s rallying cry of “Liberty and Union,” without always agreeing with the great Massachusetts senator’s positions. Contained within a section of the Union, slavery would wither and die; this was preferable to wrecking the Union and allowing a slavocracy to expand and thrive on the North American continent, threatening the experiment in freedom the Union nurtured.
Without the Union, no government could prohibit the extension of slavery westward. With the Union, the institution of slavery could be contained and eventually ended. In this regard, Lincoln differed from the abolitionists such as William Garrison, who gladly would have let the South secede so they could have clean consciences.
Too great concern for the cleanliness of one’s conscience is no useful virtue in democratic regimes. The Founders were virtuous men, by and large, as was Lincoln, but they understood they had to get their hands dirty, which did no irreparable harm so long as the system, amenable and transformable and enduring in its principles (and their application), remained viable. Thus the Union and its defense: For saving the Union and for articulating so well what it stands for and why it must not perish, Lincoln is the only American leader not of the Founders’ generation who is considered one of the Founders.