Robert Ingersoll of Illinois, America's foremost orator in the late nineteenth century (and politician, and agnostic), delivered his "Abraham Lincoln" lecture more than 70 times across the country. People paid a dollar apiece to attend his lectures.
To celebrate and commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, I excerpted the lecture, which runs to 51 pages, in a booklet I designed and printed by letterpress (using Garamont, a typeface designed by another of Illinois' sons, Frederic Goudy).
In the text after the fold, readers may discern parallels to still another of Illinois' sons.
On the 12th of February, 1809, two babes were born — one in the woods of Kentucky, amid the hardships and poverty of pioneers; one in England, surrounded by wealth and culture. One was educated in the University of Nature, the other at Cambridge.
One associated his name with the enfranchisement of labor, with the emancipation of millions, with the salvation of the Republic. He is known to us as Abraham Lincoln.
The other broke the chains of superstition and filled the world with intellectual light, and he is known as Charles Darwin.
Nothing is grander than to break chains from the bodies of men — nothing nobler than to destroy the phantoms of the soul.
The sympathies of Lincoln, his ties of kindred, were with the South. His convictions, his sense of justice, and his ideals, were with the North. He knew the horrors of slavery, and he felt the unspeakable ecstasies and glories of freedom. He had the kindness, the gentleness, of true greatness, and he could not have been a master; he had the manhood and independence of true greatness, and he could not have been a slave. He was just, and was incapable of putting a burden upon others that he himself would not willingly bear.
On the 22d day of September, 1862, the most glorious date in the history of the Republic, the Proclamation of Emancipation was issued. Lincoln had reached the generalization of all argument upon the question of slavery and freedom — a generalization that never has been, and probably never will be, excelled: "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."
This is absolutely true. Liberty can be retained, can be enjoyed, only by giving it to others. He who puts chains upon the body of another shackles his own soul.
In 1831, Lincoln went down the Mississippi on a flat-boat. When he reached New Orleans, he and some of his companions went about the city. Among other places, they visited a slave market, where men and women were being sold at auction. A young colored girl was on the block. Lincoln heard the brutal words of the auctioneer — the savage remarks of bidders. The scene filled his soul with indignation and horror. Turning to his companions, he said, "Boys, if I ever get a chance to hit slavery, by God I’ll hit it hard!"
The helpless girl, unconsciously, had planted in a great heart the seeds of the Proclamation.
Thirty-one years afterward the chance came, the oath was kept, and to four millions of slaves, of men, women and children, was restored liberty, the jewel of the soul.
In the history, in the fiction of the world, there is nothing more intensely dramatic than this.
Lincoln was a many-sided man, acquainted with smiles and tears, complex in brain, single in heart, direct as light; and his words, candid as mirrors, gave the perfect image of his thought. He was never afraid to ask — never too dignified to admit that he did not know. No man had keener wit, or kinder humor.
He was natural in his life and thought — master of the story-teller’s art, in illustration apt, in application perfect, liberal in speech, shocking Pharisees and prudes, using any word that wit could disinfect.
He was a logician. His logic shed light. In its presence the obscure became luminous, and the most complex and intricate political and metaphysical knots seemed to untie themselves.
Lincoln was candid, and with candor often deceived the deceitful. He had intellect without arrogance, genius without pride, and religion without cant — that is to say, without bigotry and without deceit.
He was an orator — clear, sincere, natural. He did not pretend. He did not say what he thought others thought, but what he thought.
Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test. It is the glory of Lincoln that, having almost absolute power, he never abused it, except on the side of mercy.
Wealth could not purchase, power could not awe, this divine, this loving man.
He knew no fear except the fear of doing wrong. Hating slavery, pitying the master — seeking to conquer, not persons, but prejudices — he was the embodiment of the self-denial, the courage, the hope and the nobility of a Nation.
He spoke not to inflame, not to upbraid, but to convince.
He raised his hands, not to strike, but in benediction.
Lincoln was the grandest figure of the fiercest civil war. He is the gentlest memory of our world.