Diana Schaub is a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and author of His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation (St. Martin’s Press). She spoke about the book with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
Which of Lincoln’s speeches does your book focus on, and why are they his greatest?
The book covers the Lyceum Address, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural. Two of these are the best-known and most admired of his presidential performances. It is uncontroversial to claim that they are his greatest or, indeed, to regard them as among the greatest speeches of all time. More out of the ordinary is my inclusion of his Lyceum Address, which was given by a very young Lincoln, when he was all of 28 years old. Yet the subject of this speech—the perpetuation of our political institutions—would guide Lincoln’s entire career. Moreover, his analysis of the threats to the project of self-government is comprehensive and timeless. My further claim is that these three speeches are keyed to foundational dates in our history (1776 and 1787, as well as 1619) and offer a way to understand the nation’s struggle for equality and liberty.
Your choice of the 1838 Lyceum Address, which deals with mob action, seems especially poignant. To what extent do Lincoln’s observations apply today?
Unfortunately, they apply all too well. My commentary on the speech begins by referring to the outbreaks of mob violence in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd. One should now add the mob action of January 6, 2021, to the list of outrages. In analyzing the instances of mob action in his own day, Lincoln acknowledged that the participants were initially motivated by a desire for justice, as they conceived it. The mobs of Lincoln’s day were often vigilantes of various stripes. He sketches how that quest for justice, when pursued in disregard of the rule of law, degenerates. Soon, the “lawless in spirit” (the looters and anarchists) join in. One thinks of the San Francisco shoplifting gangs today. Confronted with such a breakdown, law-abiding citizens will lose their trust in the government. Lincoln worries that this alienation of affection could threaten our very form of government. Lurking in the wings are individuals of disordered ambition who would seize the opportunity to usurp power. Sadly, they might be helped in their aims by decent, tranquility-loving citizens. Lincoln warns Americans of the dangers of runaway passions. Basically, what he argues is that collective self-government depends on the cultivation of self-governing individuals who understand the democratic requirement of obedience to the Constitution and laws.
In your chapter on the Gettysburg Address, you note that Lincoln focuses on 1776 and the Declaration of Independence but speaks of “propositions” rather than “self-evident truths.” What is he getting at with that seemingly small change of language?
Yes, it is true that Lincoln describes the United States as “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Many commentators have noted that Lincoln has substituted one Euclidean term for another. “Self-evident” is a term borrowed from geometry. A self-evident truth is an axiom. An axiom doesn’t require proof and, in fact, cannot be proved. You either see it or you don’t. If A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C. According to the Declaration, human equality is like that; it is axiomatic. All men—black and white, male and female—are equal in the relevant sense of being endowed by their creator with natural rights to life and liberty. Though there are plenty of places in his writings where Lincoln uses the standard language of axiom or self-evident to describe the principles of the Declaration, his most famous formulation here in the Gettysburg Address declares human equality to be a proposition requiring proof. That is why one must be dedicated to it. It’s a theorem that must be demonstrated in practice.
In a sense, this insight was already present in the language of the Declaration. Remember, the Declaration says that “we hold these truths to be self-evident”—in other words, the Declaration also recognized that political truth is not quite like mathematical truth. The holding to, or the believing in, is crucial. Of course, what had happened in Lincoln’s generation was that many Americans no longer believed in the truth of human equality. Lincoln is summoning the nation to return to what he sometimes called its “ancient faith” and to rededicate themselves to the timeless truth to which the nation had been pledged.
What contrasts Lincoln’s invocation of 1619 in his Second Inaugural—“the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil”—with the New York Times’s reference to it in the 1619 Project?
I believe that the Second Inaugural is the original and better 1619 Project. Lincoln shares with today’s 1619-ers the conviction that we must fully acknowledge our nation’s foundational wrong, not only by confessing but by acting—doing, as Lincoln says, “all” that is requisite to “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves.” However, Lincoln’s approach differs from the recent revisionism in decisive ways. For starters, his history is more accurate. The 1619 Project presents the nation as irredeemably racist, from the beginning and throughout—structurally racist. The 1619 Project argues that the American Revolution was nothing more than white nationalism, that the Constitution was a conspiracy to strengthen slaveholders, even that the Thirteenth Amendment was a fraud that inaugurated the “carceral state” (that is, a new form of controlling black liberty). For Lincoln, by contrast, the spirit of 1619 and the spirit of 1776 are opposites. The national story is the struggle between the principles of natural right and the violation of those principles, which began on a small scale in 1619 but gathered force in the generation preceding the Civil War, culminating in the secessionists’ attempt to dissolve the nation. For Lincoln—as for us—there is no possibility of progress without a return to the permanent principles of the Founding.
Excepting Lincoln, who is your favorite American orator?
That’s a tough question to answer since he really has no equal. I could cheat a bit and say Churchill, who did have an American mother. But if you disallow that dodge, then I would say Daniel Webster. Certainly, his 1830 Second Reply to Hayne is a marvelous performance, full of grandiloquence, stinging satire, and rigorous pro-Union argument. It was a speech that Lincoln had studied carefully and that generations of Americans once knew well. Though George Washington was not much of an orator, his Farewell Address is another document all Americans should read and ponder.