The Magazine

Transitional Lincoln

The speech that put a frontier lawyer-politician on the road to the White House.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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"In the turmoil occasioned by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise," Lehrman writes, "Lincoln's historical and moral imagination fastened upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the policies of the American founding, and the history of slavery" to offer a profound yet practical case for opposition to Douglas's gambit.

Lincoln had come to his arguments through laborious historical research, a keen judgment of the moment, and a deep moral sense of the injustice of slavery. He championed a radical truth in a conservative way, and this made him a force to reckon with, and quickly catapulted him to the leadership of the burgeoning Republican coalition, and from the Illinois legal circuit to the White House.

Lincoln's first and, perhaps, most profound explication of his new case was a speech offered in response to remarks by Senator Douglas in Peoria on October 16, 1854. That speech,
Lehrman writes, formed "the foundations of [Lincoln's] politics and principles" from then until his assassination 11 years later. In it we find a new Lincoln, more serious and sober, no longer the folksy storyteller, now a man of vision, patience, determination, and purpose.

Lincoln at Peoria, therefore, treats the speech as the crucial episode in Lincoln's story, "the turning point," as the subtitle puts it. The speech exemplifies Lincoln's new purpose and method, and it introduces all the key ideas that would define the man we meet in the history books.

And yet, by grounding the book insistently in the Peoria speech,
Lehrman unduly limits himself and undersells his insights and accomplishments. The focus on Peoria, for instance, causes him to lay out the political history of the period out of order, first bringing us through the 1854 speech and only then describing the context of the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lehrman's discussion of the rearrangement of American party loyalties, and the chaotic reshuffling of national politics in the wake of Douglas's bill, is among the book's strongest points, and must be among the most clear and accessible histories of the period yet written, but it is undermined by being cast as mere background for the Peoria speech.

The momentous events that came after the speech--the Lincoln-Douglas Senate race, the Dred Scott decision, and Lincoln's entire presidency--are presented with uncommon insight and care, but these, too, are forced into the box of the Peoria speech to suit the larger conceit of the book. (Lehrman entitles his chapter on Lincoln's White House years "Peoria Characterizes the Lincoln Presidency.")

In fact, this exceptional book is about much more than Lincoln at Peoria. It stands out for the way it combines the study of Lincoln's arguments with the study of Lincoln's character, and so not only avoids the cynicism of historians who seek to ignore the substance of Lincoln's profound and powerful rhetoric but also offers a compelling corrective to the opposite inclination (all too common among some conservative fans of Lincoln) to note only his arguments, and not his subtle, prudent politics.

Lehrman offers by way of example a strong remedy to what might be called the great transitive error of the Lincoln mythology: the implicit idea that because Lincoln made the best public arguments against slavery and ended slavery, his arguments ended slavery.

No one simply believes this, of course. We all know there was a war in which 700,000 Americans died, and that slavery was ended by force. But too often in looking to Lincoln for a model of statesmanship we look to the public arguments he made more than to the leadership he offered when those arguments failed.

Lincoln had sought mightily to avoid the war, and he recognized that its coming was, in key respects, a failure of statesmanship, including his own prewar statesmanship. But having come to that point, Lincoln also understood better than most the absolute need for determined leadership in wartime, and for victory. And he understood how the case he had made to the American people before the war could now help him to strengthen and lead them in the darkest hours of the struggle. The greatest mark of Lincoln's statesmanship is that he grasped this and acted on it.

We do not find the case for that kind of statesmanship in Lincoln's Peoria speech, but we do find the character and the capacity for it in the Abraham Lincoln that Lewis Lehrman describes in this fine book. That is why, as

Lehrman understands, a study of Lincoln's character is as important as a study of his arguments, and why this book, which offers an exceptional example of both and which explains the connection between them, deserves to be noticed amidst the throng of Lincoln books.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.