Lincoln on Race and Slavery

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

4

Temperance Address:
CW, 1:278–279

Although early in his career Lincoln sold alcohol in his New Salem store, once he rose in the legal profession and entered the middle class, he adopted temperance principles. Temperance advocates, much like the modern antidrug movement, identified addiction as the root cause of social disintegration and threats to the family. While some proponents advanced total abstinence as the only means to end the threat posed by alcohol, others sought only an end to the manufacture and sale of distilled (but not fermented) beverages. In either case, temperance reformers marshaled impressive statistics on the terrible impact of alcohol or crafted passionate essays, books, and novels to advance the cause. Every state and most localities could boast of a temperance society, and one's career as a public figure or as a businessman might depend upon a reputation for probity and temperance. The loss of liberty through addiction represented a natural corollary to the loss of liberty in slavery, as Lincoln affirmed in this 1842 address at an Illinois Presbyterian church on the birthday of George Washington—a figure who loomed large in temperance circles. Lincoln condemned the tyranny of drink and slavery, hoping for the day when both scourges would be eliminated from the earth. His lofty vision, a future in which “there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth,” honored the memory of the nation's Founding Father, but rendered African Americans as little more than an abstraction. Most important, the address provides keen insight into Lincoln's view of social reformers. He preferred the modest, voluntary approach of the Washingtonians—usually former alcoholics who saw those addicted to drink as victims, rather than sinners, and tried to lead them to good health and stability—and repudiated strident temperance measures and the radical reformers' penchant for denouncing the sin and the sinner. Such an approach, he thought, was foolishly counterproductive and calculated to alienate those whom advocates sought to reach. “It is an old and a true maxim, that a 'drop of honey catches

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