The Wit of Lincoln by Garrett Smith

Abraham Lincoln has been renowned in American history and culture, to many people, as the best president in our nation’s history. By all means, he definitely (for the most part) has earned that reputation. Lincoln reunited the union, abolished slavery, and sought to uphold the promise that “All men are created equal.”

Many people, however, are unfamiliar with Lincoln’s wit. A lawyer before becoming president, Lincoln astonished many people with his remarkable storytelling. Often, the tales that Lincoln told were not only entertaining, but also inspiring. During his run for the presidency, as well as during his presidency, Lincoln often used metaphors and comparative statements to justify his position on certain issues. At times, he invoked a religious tone. At other times, he took what we, today, would consider a common-sense approach, but in the most intellectual way possible. Let’s take a look at the thoughts and metaphors invoked by who most people consider our most beloved president.

Abraham Lincoln was always anti-slavery, but he was not always a prominent abolitionist. His shift to that position would not come until roughly halfway through the Civil War. Even in the years before the war, however, Lincoln was heavily outspoken against the institution, and several of his famous speeches invoked numerous anti-slavery metaphors.

Andrew Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun, was very outspokenly pro-slavery, and he even developed a theory known as “Positive Good.” That is, good for both the slave and master. Although Calhoun’s theory was developed several decades before the 1860s, Lincoln ushered in what should be considered the finest rebuttal to Calhoun, though not aimed at him directly. Lincoln stated, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing in favor of slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

During the presidential debates between Lincoln and his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas, slavery was the hottest topic to discuss. Slavery impacted nearly every ring of the political sector and there was a constant debate about how or if it should be extended. This did not just affect western territories; it also involved southerners claiming that they had a right to take slaves into free states, such as New York. One of Lincoln’s most famous speeches before his presidency came in 1858. Standing at the former capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln invoked a biblical tone on the state of the union in relation to the issue of slavery, stating, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the states, old as well as new – North as well as South.” Lincoln’s prediction was correct, as just three years later, the deadliest war fought on American soil would rage and ultimately decide the fate of slavery.

Liberty and Lincoln

Many people have asserted that there was no need for a war to end slavery, as it was abolished peacefully in virtually all other locations (with the exception of Haiti). Though it is true that slavery was peacefully abolished inmost other locations peacefully, my question in response to their claim that there was no need for a war is, “How long should it have continued, if not for the war?” Southern slave-holding Democrats were unwilling to compromise on the issue. For years, the federal government had made compromises on slavery, giving it mostly to the states and allowing it to be extended along the southern border to New Mexico and Arizona. Democrats had also enjoyed a majority in government until the 1860 election. Once Lincoln, a Republican, was elected, they demanded the liberty to leave the union, though Lincoln originally stated that he had no intention of abolishing slavery in the states where it existed; all he asked was that it stay confined.

Should the South have been allowed to leave the union in peace? I want this to be a thought-provoking question. I covered it briefly in a previous article and I will cover it again in a later one. If one takes time to read the southern secession declarations issued by various southern states, it doesn’t take long to see that slavery was at the very forefront of immediate causes. Mississippi even makes the claim that they have a much more-needed reason to secede from the union than the founders did from Britain, even after listing slavery as the position with which they were “thoroughly identified.” Issues such as northern states not obeying the Fugitive Slave Clause were also at the forefront. Does something like that really classify as “Oppression?” I’m not sure how anyone could honestly think so.

For years, some people have criticized Lincoln as being a destroyer of liberty, due to the fact that he did not let the south go. As stated before, Lincoln viewed a union that allowed secession as descendance into anarchy. He also did not believe the south had a moral right to secede, and to be fair, neither did Robert E. Lee. With slavery being at the forefront of secession, Lincoln stated, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask for a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Perhaps the best metaphorical quote stated by Lincoln can also be related to his view on liberty versus slavery. “The shepherd drives the wolf from his sheep’s throat, to which the sheep praises him as the liberator. The wolf then denounces the shepherd as the destroyer of liberty.” Perhaps it is time for us to educate all Americans on the wit and wisdom that Lincoln used.

Follow historian, @GWSmith1993, on Twitter.

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