Most of Lincoln’s most memorable phrases were delivered as part of public speeches. Here are a few examples with some historical context:
1. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
What has become commonly known as the “House Divided” speech was in fact Lincoln’s 1858 address to delegates of the Illinois Republican Convention accepting their nomination for the U.S. Senate. He was referring to the increasing political division between free and slave states which was permeating the national discourse and, in Lincoln’s view, threatening the dissolution of the union itself. Ironically, Lincoln’s most famous line in the speech was not his own, but rather a paraphrase of a biblical passage.
2. “Let us have faith that right makes might.”
The speech Lincoln gave at the Cooper Union in New York City on February 27th, 1860 was a milestone in galvanizing public sentiment in the North against the expansion of slavery into new territories, as well as one of the highlights of his oratorical career. The speech made a compelling case that the majority of the United States’ Founding Fathers had always intended slavery to be limited to states where it already existed, and where it might in time “wear off insensibly” in a gradual process of peaceful emancipation. In fact, Republican opposition to the expansion of slavery would figure prominently in the South’s eventual decision to secede, and this most famous line of Lincoln’s speech portended the war which followed.
3. “The better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln’s inaugural address on March 4th, 1861—his first act as president—was essentially an extended and eloquent appeal to a polarized nation on the verge of civil war for patience, moderation, and reconciliation. That speech’s most famous line invoked Americans’ collective decency and common identity, united by “bonds of affection” and “the mystic chords of memory.” Ultimately, Lincoln’s words were futile; war broke out just over one month later.
4. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”
Delivered as part of Lincoln’s concluding remarks to his Annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, this line was intended to justify his radical proposal for a constitutional amendment to free the slaves. Conceived as a conciliatory means to end the war which had been raging for almost two years, this proposed amendment made provision for reimbursing slave owners and encouraged deportation of freed slaves. In the end, however, it would take an Emancipation Proclamation, over two more years of war, and hundreds of thousands of lives before the issue of slavery was finally decided by the defeat of the Confederacy.
5. “With malice towards none; with charity for all.”
By the time Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address, on March 4, 1865, victory for the North was in sight, and the nation’s attention was turning to how the defeated South would be reincorporated into the Union. While many northerners called for punitive retribution from the rebellious states, Lincoln recognized that the nation would only be healed by extending a hand of friendship and forgiveness and working together toward “Reconstruction.”
Gates: Throughout his presidency, Lincoln used the power of seemingly simple, but profoundly eloquent language—to express and ennoble his cause. Lincoln’s language is the key to understanding the greatness of the man himself.
Abraham Lincoln’s Words:
• “A house divided against itself cannot stand”
• “Let us have faith that right makes might”
• “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present”
• “The better angels of our nature”
• “With malice toward none with charity for all”
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