Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 12. The Great Speeches of 1858–1860

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXII. Lincoln

§ 12. The Great Speeches of 1858–1860

Beginning with the speech at Springfield on the Dred Scott case, including the “house divided” speech, the Douglas speeches, and closing with the Cooper Union speech in February, 1860, there are a dozen pieces of prose in this second manner of Lincoln’s that are all masterly. If they had closed his literary career we should not, to be sure, particularly remember him today. In his writing as in his statesmanship it was what he did after fifty—the age he reached 12 February, 1859—that secures his position. None the less for surety of touch, for boldness, for an austere serenity with no hint of self-distrust, these speeches have no superiors among all his utterances, not even among the few supreme examples of his final manner. Reading these speeches it is hard to believe that this man in other moods had tasted the very dregs of self-distrust, had known the bitterest of all fear—that which rushes upon the dreamer from within, that snatches him back from his opportunity because he doubts his ability to live up to it.

The confident tone of these speeches makes all the more bewildering the sudden eclipse in which this period ends. The observer who reaches this point in Lincoln’s career, having pondered upon his previous hesitation, naturally watches the year 1860 with curious eyes, wondering whether 1841 and 1849 will be repeated, whether the man of many minds will waver, turn into himself, become painfully analytical, morbidly fearful, on the verge of a possible nomination for the Presidency. But the doubtfulness of the mystics—who, like Du Maurier’s artists, “live so many lives besides their own, and die so many deaths before they die”—is not the same thing as the timidity of the man afraid of his fate. Hamlet was not a coward. The impression which Lincoln had recently made upon the country was a true impression—that he was a strong man. However, not his policies, not his course of action, had won for Lincoln his commanding position in his party in 1860, but his way of saying things. In every revolution, there is a moment when the man who can phrase it can lead it. Witness Robespierre. If the phraser is only a man of letters unable to convert literature into authority, heaven help him. Again witness Robespierre. Although if we conclude that the average American in the spring of 1860 was able to read through Lincoln’s way of handling words deep enough into his character to perceive his power to handle men, we impute to the average American an insight not justified by history, yet that average man was quite right in hearing such an accent in those speeches of the second manner as indicated behind the literary person a character that was void of fear—at least, of what we mean by fear when thinking of men of action. That Lincoln wanted the nomination, welcomed it, fought hard for his election, only the sentimental devotees of the saint-hero object to admitting. Nor did his boldness stop at that. Between the election and New Year’s Day, the secession of South Carolina and the debates in Congress forced the Republicans to define their policy. The President-elect, of course, was the determining factor. Peace or war was the issue. There is no greater boldness in American history than Lincoln’s calm but inflexible insistence on conditions that pointed toward war. No amiable pacifism, no ordinary dread of an issue, animated the man of the hour at the close of 1860.