“Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men…ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant, and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together.”
Fragment on Slavery
Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th President of the United States and became known as the Great Emancipator after abolishing slavery in 1863. He consistently turned to the Declaration and the Constitution to guide the nation through the Civil War. Lincoln was deeply committed to the founding principles and the Union, which is evident in all of his writing and speeches. The selected works below are some of his most significant, and you can learn more about him on the Abraham Lincoln Discovery Page.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and Stephen Douglas, a Democrat, vied for an Illinois Senate seat. The two candidates traveled the state of Illinois and debated each other seven times before the election. One central topic in the debates was the expansion of slavery into new western states. Key selections from the speeches are below and you can find all of the debates here.
Even before they faced off for an Illinois Senate seat, Lincoln and Douglas were political foes. In his speech on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Lincoln responds in part to a speech Stephen Douglas made. Lincoln recounts the history of the Missouri Compromise, reflects on the practical ending of slavery, and argues that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise is “intrinsically” wrong.
Perhaps the most important Supreme Court decision in Lincoln’s lifetime, the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision sparked outrage among abolitionists and furthered tensions between the North and South. In this speech, Lincoln argues against the decision and Justice Taney’s opinion using the Declaration of Independence.
Lincoln’s election in 1860 eventually resulted in the secession of Southern states and the Civil War. Aware of the rising tensions about slavery, his first inaugural address emphasizes the necessity of protecting the Union from anarchy and despotism. In his second inaugural address, he reflects on the previous four years and calls for Americans to “strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds.” The two addresses demonstrate his unwavering commitment to the Union and the principles of the Declaration.
One of the most famous speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address is remarkably succinct, comprised of only 272 words. Lincoln gave the address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery after a significant Union victory, considered a turning point in the Civil War. In honoring the sacrifices of the dead soldiers, Lincoln marks the founding of the United States at the signing of the Declaration and calls upon the surviving soldiers and citizens to ensure that the nation “shall not perish from this earth.” Note: there are multiple versions of the Gettysburg Address, all found at the link below.
In the span of about five months, Abraham Lincoln issued two controversial presidential proclamations. In September of 1862, he suspended the writ of habeus corpus. Anyone arrested by a member of the Union military was not entitled to a court appearance or a lawful explanation of their arrest. In January of 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. From then on, “all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The two proclamations were key to the Union victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Incomplete arguments, speeches, or notes have been discovered among Lincoln’s writings. Though these are but fragments of complete works, important observations and ideas can be found in them. Lincoln compares the Union and Constitution to an apple of gold and picture of silver in his fragment on the Constitution. In the fragments on slavery, he exposes logical flaws in pro-slavery arguments.
In this letter to Albert Hodges, Lincoln explains the difficult situation he finds himself in. He believes that slavery is undoubtedly wrong, but also admits he does not think it is Constitutional, or right, for the President to single-handedly abolish slavery everywhere.
Abraham Lincoln on the American Union: “A Word Fitly Spoken”
Abraham Lincoln and Wartime Politics
Lincoln Goes to War
The Emancipation Proclamation: Freedom’s First Steps