Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview
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23

Fragment on the Struggle Against Slavery:
CW, 2:482

In this fragment from an unknown speech, Lincoln evoked the storied accomplishments of the British antislavery movement in order to underscore his own views on the abolition of slavery. The rhetorical tone of the text and the opening statement concerning public office clearly establish its context within the series of speeches delivered during Lincoln's unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate in the summer and fall of 1858. In this text, Lincoln spoke of a higher cause for the nation's political leaders. He used the word “republican” to refer, if not solely to the recently founded Republican Party itself, then in the more general sense to a polity based on universal principles of liberty. His reference to the British antislavery movement, which had successfully banned the slave trade fifty years earlier, embodied Lincoln's support for the abolition of slavery. It recalled the political context of the British precedent, referring to William Wilberforce as the major power in Parliament behind the antislavery bill and to Granville Sharp, a lawyer—like Lincoln—and popular antislavery leader. Lincoln positioned himself as the ardent follower of these pioneer opponents of slavery and recalled that history remembered their noble actions but forgot their proslavery opponents. His mention of the “don't care” opponents refers to Stephen A. Douglas, who professed not to care whether slavery “was voted up or down” by residents of the territories. Lincoln underscored the transcendent nature of abolition, which surpassed the usual scope of human affairs. In closing, he used the rhetorical device of self-abnegation to stress the magnitude of the issue.

-109-

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