Title: The Place of Lincoln, at the observance of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln
Date: February 19, 1922
Location: Springfield, IL
We see in great men a brighter gleam of the Infinite. Unto them is given the power to show forth to their fellow man not only what he longs to be but what he is. They are the means by which the people raise themselves to a new and higher order of nobility. They see. They do. They inspire. In the greatness of Lincoln the people of this nation are lifted up to their own greatness. As they looked on him they beheld their better selves. They felt with him the bond of a common spirit. He was Father Abraham. They loved him. They followed him. They knew that through his life they came unto a larger knowledge of the truth.
Men long have hallowed this day. It brought into the world the miracle of a new life. But it was far more than his nativity. Held within the many great meanings it would come to have was the answer to the prayer which his life made, “that this nation under God may have a new birth of freedom.” On this day was born a man that a nation might be reborn.
To some men there are given a few great moments in life, while all the rest is commonplace. Lincoln had his great moments, for “he grew in stature and in wisdom,” but he was never commonplace. He was marked by a solemn grandeur from the rude and lonely hut on the frontier until a nation stood beside his tomb. There was about him a dignity which no uncouthness of surroundings could blot out. He had a mind which no lack of letters could leave undeveloped. He had a faith which could move mountains. Two generations have sought out whatever could be associated with him, have read the record of his every word with the greatest eagerness, and held his memory as a precious heritage. Where he trod is holy ground. Yet never was a man more simply human.
Wherever men look upon his life, they are filled with a new wonder. About him there was never any needless thing. No useless burdens held him back. No wilderness of tangled ideas bewildered his vision. For him the outward show of the world was cast aside that he might be a larger partaker of reality. His cradle was bare, but above it was the precious canopy of the love of a gentle mother. When she was borne away in his early boyhood, he had learned the great lesson that all this world is mortal. From his youth he knew that anguish is the common lot of mankind. In his rearing there was no false art. Like the strengthening of his body, the strengthening of his mind came from great Nature.
In the common meaning of the term, he had no chance for learning. For him there was to be no university. Even the way to a log schoolhouse was almost closed; but he had that which overcomes all these. He had that which broke through the bonds of an almost letterless and bookless frontier. He had a deep yearning to learn. Out of the power of that wish, which, never ceasing, went with him through life, alone, self-taught (so far as any one can be self-taught), he gained great learning. He ran for office among a people where personality and character meant more than the utterance of high-sounding partisan claims. He was the choice of such a people. In the strict sense of the old phrase, he read law. For some time he held office where the holding of office called for a steady and unselfish effort to serve the public welfare. For many years he was pleading law in a country where statutes were still so few, and precedents were so much in the making, that pleading law meant very largely being able to find out the truth and carry it to the minds of a jury. It was in this work that he grew. Mingling with the crowds that the court brought together, hearing the full story of their quarrels, learning their high sense of right and wrong, seeing their ever-ready wish for justice, he came to know not only the weakness but the great strength of the people. He learned how to make facts clear and a principle of the law plain. Seeing his great ability, knowing his self-sacrificing honesty, the people came to have a great faith in him as he had a great faith in them.
In the course of events he was sent to Congress. In time he would have been a leader anywhere, but it is doubtful if he would ever really have liked the way the work of the Congress was done; still his putting in of what were known as the Spot Resolutions, dealing with the quarrel with Mexico, showed that the trial of jury cases had taught him how to ask questions of a political party as well as of a witness which it was hard for the opposition to answer without telling the truth. Nothing ever seemed to stand in the way of his being able to see the simple truth, and nothing ever seemed to move him from his wish to see the truth win. He had no will to fight for what was wrong. He might stay his hand for a while, but in the end, knowing the right, he held to it with a power which finally could not be overcome.
Coming home at the end of his term, he took up again the work of the law, but soon he had other work to do. There was never any question about what he thought of slavery. He hated it with the whole force of his whole being; but he believed not only in freedom, he believed in the Constitution of his country. He said that slavery was legal; that a Fugitive Slave Act would be valid. He had a great faith in the law. He knew that without it there would be no freedom. While he would stretch out no lawless hand against slavery, while he would observe the finding of the court in its favor, he was against its extension through the passage of any new law or the unwarranted interpretation of any old law. He was not a radical, but a conservative. He never sought to waste, but always to save. He had a love for his country so great, a faith in its people so deep, that he believed if the Union could stand according to the Constitution and the law the evil of slavery would finally fall of its own weight. He was against its legal growth. He knew it was a great moral question.
This was his state of mind when he began the great debate with Douglas. The main question of that debate was whether there was any plan or any power to extend slavery over all the nation. Douglas denied that there was any such plan, but always said that the Constitution made slavery legal, that whatever the law provided about it the whole nation must observe. He put out his claim that each State should decide for itself and said that he did not care whether slavery was voted up or voted down. Lincoln never denied the binding force of the Constitution. As he had done in Congress, he now asked a question. Under the construction which Douglas put on the Constitution, was there any legal way by which the people of a Territory could keep slavery out against the wish of one man who wanted to bring it in? Douglas had to answer, legally, no; practically, yes, by not making local laws to protect slavery. This answer pleased the North; it did not please the South. Douglas won the senatorial election then. In two years Lincoln had won the debate and won the Presidential election. He never failed to say that slavery was wrong. He knew that in the end no law which man might make could stand against the moral law.
The story of this man spread. He was called to the Eastern States. He made a speech at Cooper Union in which he showed, by a plain statement of facts made from much searching, a clear argument, and the even greater force of his own honest mind and high character, that those who had made America a nation were against slavery. It would be hard to point out where a greater speech was ever made.
When the men of the new Republican Party met, many leaders had many different plans, but in the end the urge of the will of the people chose Lincoln. He was elected. He took office amid great stress and strain. Many States had already fallen away. Others wavered. Yet he told them that we were not enemies, but friends; that it was not their duty to destroy the government, but his sworn duty to preserve it. Clearly, steadily, drawing those who loved their country more than all else around him, he kept one end alone in view, the saving of the Union. He did not ask a question now; he made a question. The armed forces of the government rightfully, legally, constitutionally held Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston. He would not take them away. On the 12th of April, 1861, the first gun was fired on our flag over that fort. The answer had been given. He knew then that the people of the nation must know that there were those who were willing to break up the Union by force. He knew more than any one else that against force used for that end there would be no lack of a will on the part of his countrymen to fight. Others doubted, but he had faith; he knew.
Amid many and conflicting forces he held to this one issue in spite of evil counsels throughout the North, in spite of staggering losses in the field. He walked alone. Loving peace, hating war, tender of heart, full of mercy, he was forced to see his countrymen slay each other. He carried a new burden on that soul which was always touched with anguish. How he poured out the agony of his soul on the field of Gettysburg and in his second inaugural address!
He saw the failure of his armies through nearly two campaigns; then came Antietam. Knowing that the time for which he long had waited had come, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He believed at last that it was possible, by breaking slavery, to keep the Union whole. Henceforth the war was not only to save the nation but to make it free. Slowly but steadily, with Farragut, with Sheridan, with Sherman, with Grant, it was brought to a close. The great evil which had lain on the soul of the whole nation had been purged away by the awful scourge of war. The flag of our country had come to have the meaning which Webster said it should have. At last Liberty and Union were one and inseparable. In this hour, which was to him not one of triumph but of duty done, the spirit of Lincoln, released from a life of anguish, returned to God who gave it.
So there came to an end this life in which the meaning of human existence reached its flood. It had within its scope every range of experience between the most humble and lonely beginning and the highest and most famous place that man could hold in all the world. Who can look upon it and feel that stern circumstances have denied to any one a chance? Who could know Lincoln and not have hope and faith? He showed that the only bounds set to the height to which a man shall rise are those which he sets himself. In the practice of law he never relied on deceit. In seeking office he used no pretense. The end he sought in life was truth through honesty. He wished to have what that could bring; no more. He did not ask that others should take his burden from him; he asked to take their burdens from them, humbly seeking the guidance of man and of God as to how it might be done. He worked with the Unseen.
What an answer he is to all those who would tear down. All of his work was to save and to build up. He wished to make himself better; he wished for gain; he wished for place. He did not try to get these by casting aside the only sure means by which they could be had. He did not seek them without humility, without industry, without honesty, without forbearance, and without faith. He spoke against the seizing and pulling down of the house of another, and in favor of building up and making safe the house of oneself. He knew that those who made the best of what they had were the only ones who were sure to have more.
Lincoln made the same appeal to his countrymen which all great men have made. There was in it nothing small or mean. No man ever had a greater love of humanity. But it came not from his belief in their weakness but in their strength. His faith was not in the things of the flesh. He held out no promise of ease. He knew there could be no growth without toil, no character without effort. His faith was in the things of the spirit. He believed all men were great enough to be free. He besought them to strive mightily that they might come unto their true estate. He knew that freedom was not easy, that its burden was not light; that it could be only for those who dwelt in the high places; that to have it and keep it was a great task. But he did not hesitate to call the people up into the high places; he did not cease to urge that with increased devotion they should highly resolve to be dedicated to the great task. They heard and they obeyed.
The place which Lincoln holds in the history of the nation is that of the man who finished what others had begun. What they had dared to dream of, he dared to do. He does not lessen the glory of what they did, rather he adds to it. They built a base that was sound and solid. They left plans by which it was to be finished. The base which they made was the Union. The plans which they drew, and stated time and time again, were for a free people. But Lincoln rises above them all in one thing. He never halted; he never turned aside. He was no opportunist. He had no lack of tact. He had a mighty sense of what was timely. He was wise as a serpent. But he did not stop part way; he followed the truth through to the end. In this peculiar power it is not too much to say that he excels all other statesmen.
He closed forever the great contest which had been waged for three-quarters of a century between the power of the States and the power of the nation. He answered for all time the question of whether the selfish interests of a part, or the greater interest of the whole should be supreme. This contest had been confined to no one locality and to no one issue. New England had turned to it when she thought it would make for her welfare. The South clung to it when she believed it was for her advantage. The National Union which Washington and Hamilton had formed, which Marshall had declared, which Webster and Jackson and Clay had defended, Abraham Lincoln saved, and, saving, made it free. He stands with those who believed in the righteous power and the just authority of a free government. He saw clearly that no free government could derive its just powers from anything less than a free people. What he saw, what he believed, when the time came he was ready to do. In all things he followed the truth to the end.
The influence of Lincoln did not abide in America alone. The great cause which he led to victory went forth into the world. Instead of leaving several States weak in their material resources, and weaker still in their moral power, he held together a great people in one strong nation, mighty in the strength of its arms, unequalled in the righteousness of its purpose. He took away whatever wicked hope those who hated freedom had that this republic might fall. When his action had established his claim that right makes might, he raised the hope of freedom everywhere. He did not change; he continued the course of history. He did not discover freedom; he showed that it had a power of its own. He was not the first who had faith in the people; he was the first who dared to put that faith to the test of every truth. His life was a force great enough to reach to the heart of every man through all eternity. He broke down all the bounds which ages of fear and tyranny had set to the hope of the world.
He opened up to the vision of mankind a new heaven and a new earth. That vision has not yet been fully realized, but people see it more and more clearly; they strive for it with greater and greater success. How greatly the past ten years have justified his faith!
It is with deep humility that any one would speak of Abraham Lincoln here. This is sacred ground. These streets of Springfield he had often trod. Here stand the walls of buildings which have echoed his voice. Over these fields and along these streams he walked alone and thought. When his eyes closed for the last time on this world, at Washington, Secretary Stanton said: “Now he belongs to the ages.” That is true. He belongs to every age in which men shall struggle for an ideal. He belongs to every place where men fight for human rights; but in a peculiar, more intimate way, he belongs to you.
He had served your city well before it became his home. With his help, while a member of the legislature, Springfield had been made the capital of this State. Here in an office he began the regular study of the law. From this city your fathers sent him to Congress. He came back to his home at the end of his term and let it be known that his political career was done — from that time forward he would give himself wholly to the law.
So men work and plan and tell their plans, but the issue lies in another Hand. In May, 1854, the Missouri Compromise was repealed. In October, at your State Fair Grounds, Abraham Lincoln spoke. He was beginning to make that fight against evil for which he had been raised up. Even those of your fathers who knew him best heard him with wonder. “He felt upon his soul the truths burn which he uttered,” a local paper said; “and all present felt that he was true to his own soul. His feelings once or twice swelled within and came near stifling utterance. He quivered with emotion. The whole house was still as death.”
Here, in a letter to a friend, he wrote: “Can we, as a nation, continue permanently — forever —half slave and half free? The problem is too mighty for me — may God in His mercy superintend the solution.” In and out of your homes he moved restlessly during the week of the Chicago convention. Here in the doorway of a store he heard the shout: “Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln, you are nominated! ” The crowd thronged across the street from the telegraph office. He raised his hat. “My friends, I am glad to receive your congratulations,” he said; “and as there is a little woman down on 8th Street who will be glad to hear the news, you must excuse me until I inform her.”
Here was that upper room, above a store, across the street from the State House, to which he went some months later, where, with no books but a copy of the Constitution, the Speech of 1850 of Henry Clay, the Proclamation against Nullification of Andrew Jackson, and the reply to Hayne of Daniel Webster, he prepared his first inaugural address. At your railroad station he made his tender, heartfelt little speech of farewell as he went to the task which he said was “more difficult than that of Washington had been.”
He never forgot Springfield. Always, a visitor from here might be sure of a warm welcome at the White House. In the last year of his first term, when it seemed likely that he might fail of re-election, he spoke often of his coming plans to his family and friends. All of these plans were centred here. Perhaps a little house on the street, perhaps a farm on the outskirts — but somewhere, somehow, he would find a place in Springfield which would keep him for the rest of his years in the town and among the people he loved.
It is not to the city of Washington that men must turn if they would understand Abraham Lincoln. The beginning and the end of his nature is here. Here was the life which he carried with him. The frank and open ways of the neighbor were his. The indulgent patience of the friend who knows how hard and difficult is the path of the common man. Too often the world turns its eyes to the high places, thinking that from them will come its revelations and its great events, forgetful that a greater wisdom is in those who “mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.” The greatest epoch in all human history began in a manger. This great American, the foremost world figure of the nineteenth century, came out of a frontier clearing and spent his early manhood in a village of a few hundred souls.
In the memory of these facts there lies a solid basis for our faith. There is in the people themselves the power to put forth great men. There is in the soul of the nation a reserve for responding to the call to high ideals, to nobility of action, which has never yet been put forth. There is no problem so great but that somewhere a man is being raised up to meet it. There is no moral standard so high that the people cannot be raised up to it. God rules, and from the Bethlehems and the Springfields He sends them forth, His own, to do His work. In them we catch a larger gleam of the Infinite.
Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1924.
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Greg Harkenrider who prepared this document for digital publication.