Presidents’ Day Lecture, 2019
By Dr. Richard Ferrier
Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College
February 22, 2019
Audio | Podcast
Lincoln’s speech on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the propriety of its rhetoric constitute the subject of what I am about to say. In order to defend the propriety, the wisdom, even, of that speech, I must first say something about rhetoric, and political rhetoric in particular. I will take Plato as my authority, and his Gorgias as my principal text.
Part 1: Gorgias
That dialogue seems to reject rhetoric, and especially the rhetoric one finds in political speeches. It even seems directed against politics, or at any rate Athenian politics such as one reads about in Thucydides. This is the first ‘look’ of the text.
But there are signs and hints of something more, from the first page to the last. Let me show you a few, and then I’ll tell you what I think the implied meaning, the second ‘look’ appears, to me, to be.
Socrates and his longtime companion, Chaerephon, meet up with Callicles, a young and ambitious Athenian, just outside Callicles’ house. Inside are Gorgias, an old and distinguished teacher of rhetoric, a celebrity, almost, and his student Polus.
Let’s look back again, and listen to some of the talk:
Callicles. In war and battle, Socrates, this is the way to do your part!
Socrates. Oh my. Did we show up too late – after the feast, as the saying goes?
Callicles says yes, since they missed Gorgias’ banquet of words “a display of many beautiful things,” he calls it. and Socrates playfully blames Chaerephon---he had delayed the two of them in the Agora. Chaerephon accepts the blame, but promises to “cure” (note the metaphor) the evil by asking for a new display, appealing to Gorgias’ friendship with him. Socrates asks if Gorgias would be willing to “converse” with them, setting aside any “display.” He wants discuss the question, “What power belongs to the man’s art, and what it is that he lays claim to and teaches.”
Callicles boldly invites Socrates to come in and do just that, an invitation that Socrates calls “beautiful,” and then, oddly, sends Chaerephon in first with the injunction, “You ask him.” Chaerephon, timidly, or perhaps seeming a little dull, responds, “Ask him what?”
Socrates. “Who is he?”
Chaerephon, again hesitating... “How do you mean?”
Socrates responds with one of his characteristic comparison to arts and artisans, this time shoemaking and the shoemaker. It would seem that Chaerephon is to ask Gorgias about his art.
Are we to think that the questions, “who are you”, “what is your art?”, and “what is the power of your art?”, are all the same? Does the answer to one throw light on the others? What do you think?
As Chaerephon, somewhat artlessly, is trying to ask Gorgias this, Polus barges in, even before Chaerephon can get to the correct framing of the question. Polus says he will answer for Gorgias; perhaps because he, too, wishes to make a display.
The way Chaerephon questions Polus only increases our perplexity about the meanings of, “Who are you?”. In his question, he names individuals, not by arts, but by family relations. The first, Herodicus, happens to be Gorgias’ brother, and also to be a doctor. Who is he? A brother or a doctor? Chaerephon asks Polus the leading question, “If Gorgias happened to be a knower of his brother’s art, what would we justly name him? Wouldn’t it be what that one [Herodicus] is named?” The answer, to which Polus agrees, is this: “in asserting that he is a doctor, then, we would be saying something fine.” Polus, at least, is willing to take a man as defined by his art. This is the second mention of medicine, let us note.
Chaerephon, after another such example—a painter this time—tries to get Polus to name Gorgias by his art, but is met with a blast of bombast about how Gorgias’ art is “the most beautiful...” At this point Socrates steps in for his follower Chaerephon, and Gorgias replaces Polus, and we step back for some perspective.
You who have read the dialogue, were you struck by the frequent use of medicine, health, and doctors in Socrates’ examples? I was, and so I began to count them. I came up with over twenty, from Chaerephon’s brief and casual mention of having the “cure” and the mere fact of Gorgias having a doctor for a brother, through many longer passages, and including the well-known analogy he produces for Polus, which is, in brief, this: “Cookery is to medicine as rhetoric is to justice.” Gorgias mentions his own use of rhetoric to help a sick person accept his brother the physician’s advice; he imagines the somewhat fantastic case of a deliberative assembly taking the advice of a rhetorician over that of a doctor on some matter concerning the public health (perhaps not so fantastic … remember Pericles’ policy of retreat within the walls, and the ensuing plague?)
Finally, I count six passages, some brief and others extended, where Socrates uses health and sickness of soul, and often the doctor, in his encounter with Callicles, the longest and concluding section of the text.
I suggest that medicine is not merely a convenient example for the Gorgias; it is a thematic example.
Let us leave the text, and think on our own for a bit. First, about arts and identity. Who are you? Who am I? I am a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College. Perhaps I have an art by which I do that. I teach many things, and each may be called an art, one of the liberal arts. Am I a kind of Centaur, composed of many characters? Are you?
More. I am a Catholic, an American citizen, a son, father, and husband. Who am I? Do you think these personal questions are “modern” and do violence to Plato’s thought? If so, consider this from the Phaedrus (Socrates is speaking):
“For me, the question is whether I happen to be some sort of beast, even more complex in form and more tumultuous than the hundred-headed Typhon, or whether I am something simpler and gentler, having by nature a share of the divine and the un-Typhonic.”
To have a share of the divine is to partake in integrity, in wholeness.
In our time we tend to call some artful activities, the ones by which we make a living, medicine and teaching, for example, professions, and others mere jobs. Why is that? Is it not because the professions, in various degrees, engage and perfect the person by having a greater wholeness, an element of wisdom, however imperfect? Could rhetoric be such an art, an art that contains a share of wholeness, a kind of wisdom?
The simple answer to the question, “Who are you?” in Gorgias’ case is given by Gorgias himself, once Polus and Chaerephon hand the argument back to their teachers. He declares to Socrates that he is a knower of the art of rhetoric, and a good one, too. He adds that he can “make others” into the same. In other words, he can teach his art, and for men living in any polity: Athens, but not Athens only.
Rhetoric effects persuasion, and Socrates leads Gorgias through a maze of important questions about whether it is universal or limited to persuasion about some things only. Since our interest tonight is in political rhetoric, we will pass by these texts, with regret. In fact I propose to rush ahead to the most interesting part of the dialogue for our purposes, the crisis that marks the end of the portion where Gorgias is Socrates main interlocutor, a section that is marked by earnestness, courtesy, and energy on Socrates’ part. Because of a violent intervention by Polus, it is also a crisis that is not resolved.
This is how the crisis is reached. Gorgias agrees that his art is for speaking persuasively to crowds, courts, and legislative assemblies about the just and the unjust. He has also said that he can teach others what he knows. And, that his students must be just already, or if not, he can teach them that too. The know-how we call ‘rhetoric’ here is taken to include some intelligent having of justice. And Gorgias has claimed to be the exemplar teacher of rhetoric. Gorgias goes on to agree that anyone who has learned justice becomes just. But he has also said that he, the teacher, is not responsible if his student uses rhetoric unjustly. And whoever acts unjustly is, at least in that instance, not just.
Let us hear again the words in which this transpires[459 D].
Socrates:...but for now let’s examine this first: is the rhetorician in exactly the same condition with respect to the just and the unjust, the shameful and the beautiful, the good and the bad, as he is with respect to the healthy and the other matters belonging to the other arts, that he doesn’t know them, what’s good or what’s bad, what’s beautiful or what’s shameful or just or unjust, but contrives persuasion about them so that, without knowing, he seems, among those who don’t know, to know more than the one who does know?
Or is it a necessity to know them, and does the person who’s going to learn rhetoric from you have to arrive knowing these things already?
And if the one who arrives doesn’t know them, are you, as the teacher of rhetoric, going to teach him nothing about these things—because it’s not your job—and are you going to make him seem among the masses to know such things when he doesn’t know them, and seem to be good when he isn’t?
Or will you be totally unable to teach him rhetoric, if he doesn’t already know the truth about these things?
How does it go with things like that, Gorgias? And in front of Zeus, make the revelation you were just now saying you would, and tell us what in the world the power of rhetoric is.
Note the invocation of Zeus here---always a marker of serious matters in Plato. The power of rhetoric is a serious matter.
Gor: Well, I suppose, Socrates, if he doesn’t happen to know these things, he’ll learn them too from me.
Soc: Hold it right there, because you’re putting it beautifully. If you make someone a rhetorician, it’s a necessity for him to know the things that are just and unjust, either beforehand, or afterward by learning them from you.
Socrates emphasizes this agreement, and says Gorgias speaks “beautifully” here. The Greek could also mean, “finely”, or even “nobly”. Note that he praises Gorgias. Does he flatter him? However that may be, he is kind to him.
Gor: Quite so.
Soc: What about this? Someone who’s learned matters of carpentry is a carpenter, is he not?
Soc: And someone who’s learned matters of music is a musician?
Soc: And someone who’s learned matters of doctoring is a doctor, and so on for the rest? According to our same speech, each one who’s learned each thing is the sort of person his knowledge turns him into?
We note that the example of the doctor is the climax of this list of arts as ‘making the man.’
Gor: Quite so.
Soc: So according to our same speech, it’s also the case that someone who’s learned matters of justice is just?
Gor: Totally so, I presume.
Soc: And presumably the just person does just things.
Soc: Then it’s a necessity that the rhetorician is just, and that a just person wants to do just things?
Gor: So it appears.
Soc: Therefore the just person will never want to do injustice.
Soc: And from our speech it’s a necessity that the rhetorician is just?
Soc: Therefore the rhetorician will never want to do injustice.
Gor: It appears not, anyway.
Soc: Well do you remember saying a little while ago that one ought not to lay the blame on the trainers, or throw them out of the cities, if a boxer uses his boxing skill and commits injustice, and so in the same way if a rhetorician uses his rhetorical skill unjustly one ought not to lay the blame on the person who taught him or exile him from the city, but the person who’s doing the injustice and isn’t using his rhetoric rightly? Were those things said or not?
Gor: They were said.
Soc: But now it’s shown that this same person, the rhetorician, never does injustice, isn’t that so?
Gor: So it appears.
Soc: And in the first speeches that were made, Gorgias, it was said that rhetoric would be about speeches not on the even and the odd but on the just and the unjust, is that right?
Soc.: So in view of that, when you said those things then, I assumed that rhetoric, which always makes speeches about justice, could never be an unjust thing. But since you were saying a little later that the rhetorician might also use his rhetoric unjustly, I got so surprised, thinking the things that had been said weren’t in harmony, that I made those statements to the effect that if you would count it a gain to be refuted, the way I would, it would be worthwhile to have a conversation, but if not, to tell it goodbye. And now further along, when we’ve examined it, you see for yourself that we agree once again that the rhetorician is incapable of using his rhetoric unjustly or of being willing to do injustice. What in the world is going on with these things, Gorgias—by the dog!---is something it will take no small communal effort to look into adequately from all angles.
At this point, Polus breaks in.... and we are left wondering where this serious conversation would have gone.
Note first the oath, “by the dog!” that Socrates employs here, and second, his earnest but friendly invitation to Gorgias, an invitation to think together. About the second of these, the communal effort, it is aborted by Polus’ abrupt and rude interruption. From this point on, Gorgias, whose identity was to have been the central question, will remain completely silent except to ask, once, for clarification of something that Socrates says, and once more, much later, to urge Callicles to let the discussion continue. In both cases, he asks; he makes no display and makes no claims.
About the first, the oath “by the Dog!”, in Plato’s writings it signifies the Egyptian God Anubis, whose Greek counterpart is Hermes, the soul-conductor. Eva Brann, a great living reader of Plato (and in many things my Diotima) suggests that Hermes, who was the guide of Heracles famous for his twelve labors, may be understood as a guide in the greatest labor for men, the work of self-examination. Polus blocks that labor.
There is more at stake here than the contradiction into which Gorgias has fallen, and it involves both the question of who the particular man Gorgias is and the question concerning political rhetoric, its relation to justice and its power and nature.
A few pages later, in speaking with Polus about rhetoric, Socrates will call it an ‘eidolon’ of justice, just as cookery is an ‘eidolon’ of medicine. The word is, in this context variously translated in the versions of the Gorgias I have been consulting as, phantom or simulacrum, since Socrates seems to be thinking of a ‘mere image’, a deceit, really.
But there are images and images; sometimes an ‘eidolon’ can be, at least in part, a faithful image. The idols of the pagans, so the prophets tell us, are utterly false; that in fact there is no original of which they are the likenesses. Homer has Odysseus reach out to embrace an ‘eidolon’ in Hades, as does Vergil in Aeneas’ adventure underground. These are phantoms, not real men and women, but they are ‘eidola’ of what were once real originals. Similar to these are the phantoms in our dreams. We are merely ‘dreaming’ most of them, but they generally come from originals, the real persons and things of our waking life. An image in a mirror, on the other hand, is at least to the sense powers, present now, and faithful. We learn something about how we actually look as we gaze on our own reflections. Still other images, as man himself, are likenesses with some true participation in the being of their originals. We are created, as Genesis says, in the image and likeness of God himself.
Granting that in his speech to Polus Socrates intends the meaning of deceitful image, we may wonder whether, for Gorgias, who is at this point intently listening, the richer, more truth-like senses come to mind. And if we are listening intently, we too may, and should, ask that question.
I propose that this very possibility, is what Socrates wanted to investigate … “by the Dog!” … when Polus aborted the conversation, and it is just for this reason that he has treated Gorgias, throughout his discussion with him, so respectfully. There may be a true rhetoric, one that “images truly,” that drinks from the clear springs of Truth, and Gorgias, though without full self-knowledge, may have a sense of it, ‘through a glass, darkly.’
Let me put that more directly, as my first conclusion: There is such a thing as good rhetoric; it demands Truth and justice in the rhetorician’s soul; if he is a political rhetorician, it requires knowledge of political justice. It will not be like cookery, but like medicine; it will aim at healing the body politic, and most of all where that body is seriously ill. Having as its goal the good of the other, it may truly be said to partake of Justice. It acts from goodwill, perhaps even Charity, for the patient.
The answer to the question: “Who are you Gorgias, what is your art and its power?” could be, “I am a statesman, or one with a know-how essential to the statesman. My art is helping the political community get well, and its power is vast---not infinite, but vast. And my job is worthy of being called a profession, or at least a part of a profession, since it aims at something high and whole: the good of the citizens in common.
Now we turn, very briefly, to the final part of the dialogue, where something like this view is stated directly by the most hostile of Socrates’ interlocutors, Callicles, and where this view seems harshly rejected by Socrates. I give a sketch of the text [from 502 d ff].
Socrates, provocative as always, brings the now bitter discussion … may one even call it a discussion at this point?…back to political rhetoric. In the background, for some time, has been the sharp (too sharp?) distinction between pleasing one’s hearers, like a cook, or benefiting them, like a doctor. This is what he says:
...What about the rhetoric directed to the Athenian populace or to the other populations of free men in the cities? What in the world do we make of that? Do rhetoricians seem to you to be speaking always with a view to what’s best, aiming at that with their speeches so the citizens will be the best they can possibly be, or do they too exert themselves toward gratifying the citizens, and place a low value on the common [things] for the sake of their own private [interest], talking to the populace like they were children, trying only to gratify them without giving any thought to whether they’ll be better or worse from that?
Callicles, quite interestingly, answers thus:
This is no longer a simple question you’re asking, because there are some who say the things they say out of care for the citizens, and some who are the sort you’re speaking of.
In what follows, Socrates first elicits from Callicles the concession that there are no such rhetoricians, none at all in our time. None.
They turn to the “ancients,” famous men from Themistocles through Pericles, and Socrates, too harshly in my opinion, claims that none of them passes muster. Callicles demurs (gently).
Let us note this. If any rhetorician or statesman did make the people better, more law-abiding, more moderate and just, more complete as a human beings, he would pass this test. My own opinion is that Socrates is too puritanical, too insensitive to the goods of liberty, commerce and progress, to see how the statesmen who gave Athens its hegemony did in fact make the people, at least in some ways, more perfect in the possibilities of human life. I stand with Pericles on this question. I do not propose, here, to argue that position. We might wish to think about it in the question period.
Now I wish to bring in, very quickly, two more ancient opinions, one from Plato, and another from St. Augustine. After that, we leave antiquity and the Mediterranean, and move on to the American Midwest, and the 19th Century.
Plato treats of rhetoric at some length in another dialogue, the Phaedrus. The topic is embedded in a very rich, apparently un-unified discussion of love, the soul, writing versus speech and dialectic. I confess right off the bat that I will be taking things out of context, and interpreting them almost aphoristically, with little explicit justification. What I say here is as much my opinion as that of Plato: he provokes me to think most of what I am about to say.
So in this dialogue Socrates compares rhetoric to medicine again. [270 b] If this comparison is valid, the rhetorician, like the physician, must know something. The doctor knows the body, and in particular, he must know the body of this particular person whom he will heal. He “diagnoses” him, as we say. Persuasion in general demands knowing the soul of the listener. Moreover, all rhetoric, at least in the Phaedrus, is called “psychagogia,” soul-leading, or soul-conduction.
Soc: Since the capacity of speech is to guide the soul, someone intending to become a rhetorician must know what forms the soul possesses...
Phaed: It is not possible to describe it otherwise, Socrates, I suppose. Yet, this seems to be no small undertaking.
Accordingly, good political rhetoric, the rhetoric of the statesman, knows the soul. This will be, if such a thing is possible, the soul of the body politic. Political diagnosis would mean knowing what is wrong with this particular polity, and what health means for it. On the authority of St. Augustine, I wish you to grant me that there is such a thing as the soul of a political community; indeed, that this is what actually makes of a mere multitude, a res publica, or a people. Here is St. Augustine:
Suppose that we were to define what it means to be a people (populus) not in the usual way, but in a different fashion—such as the following: a people is a multitudinous assemblage of rational beings united by concord regarding loved things held in common. Then, if we wished to discern the character of any given people, we would have to investigate what it loves. And no matter what an entity loves, if it is a multitudinous assemblage not of cattle but of rational creatures and if these are united by concord regarding loved things held in common, then it is not absurd to call it a people; and, surely, it is a better or worse people as it is united in loving things that are better or worse, By this definition, the Roman people is a people, and its estate (res) is without doubt a commonwealth (res publica). What this people loved in early times and what it loved in the ages that followed, the practices by which it passed into bloody sedition and then into social and civil wars, tearing apart and destroying that concord which is, in a certain manner, the health and welfare (salus) of a people—to this history bears witness...And what I have said concerning this people and concerning its commonwealth, this also I should be understood to have said and thought concerning the Athenians, the rest of the Greeks,...and the other nations as well.
To apply this to our own republic, let us listen to John Quincy Adams in his magnificent speech on the 50th Anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution
...[the Constitution’s] VIRTUES, its republican character, consisted in its conformity to the principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and as its administration must necessarily be always pliable to the fluctuating varieties of public opinion; its stability and duration by a like overruling and irresistible necessity, was to depend upon the stability and duration in the hearts and minds of the people of that virtue, or in other words, of those principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and embodied in the Constitution of the United States.
Now, on to Peoria, Illinois, 1854.
Part 2: Peoria
In 1859, Abraham Lincoln was seeking the Republican Party’s nomination as its presidential candidate. He described his political career in these words:
...In 1846 I was once elected to the lower House of Congress. Was not a candidate for re-election. From 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, practiced law more assiduously than ever before. Always a whig in politics, and generally on the whig electoral tickets, making active canvasses. I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.
The repeal of the Missouri Compromise was a portion of the Act establishing the Kansas and Nebraska territories. This bill, the “Nebraska Act,” overturned the federal ban on slavery in that part of the Louisiana Purchase north of Latitude 36 30’. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was then the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories; Douglas consented to the amendment, and the bill passed. And as Douglas had predicted, “a hell of a storm” arose.
What did Douglas intend? There can be no doubt that he wanted the Union to survive and prosper. Moreover, he was not, like Calhoun, of the “slavery as a positive good” school. Indeed, Douglas had supported the admission of California as a free state, and the organization of the Oregon Territory, in which Congress adopted an amendment authored by Douglas recognizing the existing ban on slavery, enacted by the settlers themselves.
Douglas was an intelligent and bold politician, ambitious for the Presidency. He would be the candidate of the Northern Democrats in 1860, running against Lincoln. He saw the threat of disunion, and he had heard the resentment in his Southern Democratic colleagues like Calhoun. Calhoun had all but demanded that no one even talk about slavery as a political question. These are Calhoun’s exact words, from his speech of March 4,1850:
The North has only to will it [the saving of the Union] to accomplish it; to do justice by conceding to the South an equal right in the acquired territory, and to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to the fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled; to cease the agitation of the slavery question...”
Calhoun died on the last day of that same month. He had been too sick to read his own speech to the Senate, and so had it read for him by a friend. But in the four years since the compromise measures had passed, the agitation had NOT ceased. It was a time for new efforts, by younger statesmen.
Douglas sought to be that statesman. He proposed, and oversaw the passage of a bold answer to the Union’s troubles. This was the Nebraska Act of 1854. It combined practical politics and principle. He called the principle, “Popular Sovereignty.” Let us hear Douglas from his 1858 speech given in Chicago:
“I regard the great principle of popular sovereignty, as having been vindicated and made triumphant in this land, as a permanent rule of public policy in the organization of Territories and the admission of new States...
I deny their [Congress’] right to force a good thing upon a people who are unwilling to receive it. The great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide of itself, whether a thing is right or wrong, whether it would be good or evil for them to adopt it; and the right of free action, the right of free thought, the right of free judgment upon the question is dearer to every true American than any other under a free government.
As a policy, “Popular Sovereignty” meant that Congress would no longer prohibit slavery in any United States’ territories. The question would be handed over to the people of the territories as they organized themselves. It would be addressed again in their conventions when they grew ripe for statehood. Since the fugitive slave law was now in effect, and since the overseas slave trade had been illegal for nearly 50 years, this meant that there should be no reason for any discussion or “agitation” on the issue to arise in Congress again. He further promised not to “care” about what the people of any territory seeking admission had decided on the issue in preparing for admission as a state, so long as they had done it fairly.
This was meant to satisfy the demands of what Lincoln referred to as ‘the slave power’. The national argument, as a political argument, was to cease, because the issue, as some say now about abortion, “didn’t belong in politics.” But on the question of the spread of slavery, Douglas’s solution had some appeal to the North, since many thought it unlikely that the northern climate would be hospitable to the plantation agriculture, chiefly cotton and rice, that had been home to slavery in the South. If this hunch about the economics of the spread of slavery were true, then the Union would become progressively more and more dominated by free states, without anyone having to raise the question of the morality of slavery, and thereby offending the slave interest in the South.
To make all this work, Douglas had to persuade his fellow Americans that “Popular Sovereignty” was the cornerstone of the republic. He had some reason to think that it was, and that he could make a majority think so. For one thing, the principle squared with the American fondness for local control. Douglas would point out in his 1858 debates with Lincoln that liquor laws, and agricultural laws, and a host of other ordinances differed from Maine to Louisiana, and that we liked it that way. Jefferson himself had been a strong proponent of states’ rights and of local self-government. At the same time, within these local communities, the will of the people had been held sovereign. Jefferson had called the rule of the will of the majority a “sacred principle” in his First Inaugural Address.
But there were problems with Douglas’ formulation. He might say, “I don’t care,” about local decisions on slavery, but people did care. In the case of Kansas, they would care enough to send armed bodies of settlers to inflate the votes of their side in the territorial disputes on the way to statehood. These men cared enough to shed blood over the question. And it was not perfectly evident that slavery could only prove profitable growing cash crops in warm climates. As Douglas uttered these words, there was, in Richmond, a successful factory enterprise that employed slave labor exclusively.
Most important of all, popular sovereignty, in its fundamental sense, majority rule, is not a complete statement of the American Creed. Jefferson’s exact words, from his first inaugural address, in which he called the popular will “sacred,” deserve quotation in full:
All, too, will bear in mind this Sacred Principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
Douglas claimed to stand with the Founders. And he did agree with them on two points:
- The preservation of the Union.
- Non-interference by the Federal Government with Slavery in the States where it was established by Law.
Moreover, he seemed to at least wish that the peculiar Institution not expand into the Territories.
But while the Founders, in the Northwest Ordinance, employed the power of Federal Law to prohibit such expansion, Douglas’ Nebraska Law repealed the corresponding language in the Missori Compromise of 1820.
Fundamental law forms the minds and hearts of citizens. What it prohibits it disapprobates. What it allows as a right, it tends to commend as Right. The Founders’ policy Taught that slavery was a matter of injustice. Stephen Douglas’s repeal taught that it was a matter of indifference.
This meant that he differed from the founders in principle, and not only in policy. Douglas had made self-rule by some men, and not self-evident truths concerning the natural rights of all, the deepest principle of free government.
Lincoln thought the policy harmful; he was convinced that the principle, as Douglas’ understanding would have it, was false. But that puts it too mildly. He thought that the Soul of the Republic, its unifying love, the source of its very life, was being poisoned by Douglas’ error. That is what “aroused” him in 1854. This is how he put it at Peoria:
The doctrine of self-government is right—absolutely and eternally right—but it has no just application as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such application depends on whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to just that extent a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.
Judge Douglas frequently, with bitter irony and sarcasm, paraphrases our argument by saying: “the white people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, but they are not good enough to govern a few miserable negroes!!”
Well I doubt not that the people of Nebraska are, and will continue to be, as good as the average of people elsewhere. I do not say the contrary. What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent. I say that this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.
Lincoln’s Peoria speech merits our attention for many historical reasons. It puts clearly and briefly the story of Federal power over slavery over a period of seven decades. It gives the heart of his disagreement with Douglas. And it put Lincoln on the path to the White house. But I wish to present it as a model of American Socratic Rhetoric.
The opening sentence gives the subject of the speech in plain, homespun simplicity: “The repeal of the Missouri compromise, and the propriety of its restoration, constitute the subject of what I am about to say.” The first third or so is a thorough and dispassionate review of the policy of Congress regarding slavery from the time of the Articles of Confederation down to the present day. It establishes conclusively that Congresses from before the Constitution up to the 1850’s held that they had the power to restrict slavery in national territories, and had often used that power.
The middle third considers what, in the present, might have led some to wish to repeal the Compromise. Was the repeal needed? Was it called for by public opinion?
The last of the three parts treats of the deep source, the “ruling beginning” of the Repeal. And how it is fatal to republican liberty.
In thinking of the requirements of true rhetoric, we recall first its truthfulness. Lincoln’s summary of the legal history of slavery in the territories is carefully researched and accurate. Its tone is mild and non-partisan. Lincoln does justice to the motives of all the actors. And, by reserving extended hortatory passages to the ending third, it prepares for drama and finality. Passion, such as it appears, comes after argument. His listeners will only be asked to feel after they have understood.
The same, which it must be admitted is seasoned with a bit of pepper and hot mustard, may be said of the middle third.
The burning heart of the speech is the last third. There, Lincoln exposes the contradiction between popular sovereignty as applied to slavery, and natural right as enshrined in the Declaration. And his language becomes incandescent.
If any human being, black, white, yellow, or brown, is a man, and if I arrogate to myself, and to men of my color only, the right to choose whether that man and his kind shall be slaves or not, I cannot have grounded that decision in the universal proposition that “all men are created equal” and hence “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Since I am no longer measured, that is, held to that moral measure, in my choice, how shall I make it? Douglas’ understanding of popular sovereignty comes to saying that the “sacred right of self-government” allows a moral right in one man’s enslaving another. Lincoln says that the real meaning of Douglas’ doctrine would lead men “into an open war with the very principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”
Indeed, not only would the popular sovereignty basis of the Nebraska Bill lead men to disparage the Declaration, it had already done so, and not only by the chieftains of the slave power, like Calhoun. The eloquence of the following passage from the Peoria speech demands that it be quoted at length:
Little by little, but steadily as man’s march to the grave, we have been giving up the OLD for the NEW faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a “sacred right of self-government.” These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other.
When Pettit [Senator from Indiana], in connection with his support of the Nebraska bill, called the Declaration of Independence “a self-evident lie,” he only did what consistency and candor require all other Nebraska men to do. Of the forty odd Nebraska Senators who sat present and heard him, no one rebuked him. Nor am I apprized that any Nebraska newspaper, or any Nebraska orator, in the whole nation, has ever yet rebuked him. If this had been said among Marion’s men, Southerners though they were, what would have become of the man who said it? If this had been said to the men who captured Andre, the man who said it, would probably have been hung sooner than Andre was. If it had been said in old Independence Hall, seventy-eight years ago, the very door-keeper would have throttled the man, and thrust him into the street.
We note how well Lincoln knows his audience, or as I would rather say, how well he diagnoses his patient. Deep in the American soul lay three loves. 1) Patriotism, especially for the Union declared in 1776 and achieved by the sword in the War of Independence, hence the reference to Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, the great Revolutionary hero from South Carolina, and to the Major Andre affair, which played out in the Northern Army, commanded by Washington, 2) The Declaration itself, hence the mention of “old Independence Hall” the sacred temple of American liberty, and 3) Biblical religion, hence his invocation of the choice between God and Mammon.
Lincoln is here displaying his knowledge of the soul of the body politic, in order to heal it.
Sir Francis Bacon wrote long ago that, “Nature, to be mastered, must be obeyed.” The saying is equally true of the nature of the physical body and of the body politic. Public opinion, the soul of the political body, was ailing in the days after the Nebraska Bill, and Douglas was prescribing as medicine what Lincoln thought poison.
As we read the Peoria speech today, one element in the middle part jars our sensibilities: Lincoln does not take a stand for full political and social equality of the races. Some of the abolitionists of his day, especially the Quakers and other religious abolitionists, did. The 1854 laws of Maine set up in almost all respects what we would recognize today as equal civil rights, including jury duty and voting rights. But Maine was almost alone. Illinois’ laws did not allow blacks to vote or serve on juries, and Illinois was typical of the free states.
In Peoria, Lincoln said this: “Let it not be said that I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks. I have already said the contrary.” Was this statesmanlike too, or was it either weak or unwise, or even unjust?
I think Lincoln’s position in the Peoria speech can be vindicated, and that it can be reconciled with his support for expanded civil rights towards the end of the Civil War, if two things are kept in mind. First, as Lincoln himself said in 1859, “In this country, public opinion is everything.” Second, that the knowledge of the statesman is prudence, or practical wisdom, which consists in knowing how to move towards moral goals by practicable steps, not in “the immoderate pursuit of moral perfection” which, in political life, “will more often lead to misery and terror than to justice and happiness.” [Thomas G. West]
To begin with the first point, is it not self-evident that in a republic, where the citizens are governed by their consent, their opinion will be the court of last resort, the final arbiter of all disputes? That does not mean that those opinions will never change, or that it will not be the duty of a good man and especially of a statesman to mold them for the better. But a public man will ignore them at his peril. Lincoln turns this weapon back on Douglas in the Peoria speech, when he tells him that he will never be able to suppress the voice of the people crying out that slavery is unjust: “...the great mass of mankind ...consider slavery a great moral wrong; and their feeling against it, is not evanescent, but eternal. It lies at the very foundation of their sense of justice; and it cannot be trifled with—It is a great and durable element of popular action, and I think, no statesman can safely disregard it.”
Lincoln never said that political equality between the races was wrong; the most complete expression of his early views on the matter came in the 1858 debates with Douglas, and he clothed them entirely in the language of feeling: “...[I said years ago that] my own feelings would not admit a social and political equality between the black and white races, and that even if my own feelings would admit of it, I still knew that the public sentiment of the country would not, and that such a thing was an utter impossibility, or substantially that.” And again, in the same debate, “I agree with Judge Douglas that he [the Negro] is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color—perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; but in the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.” Lincoln’s reference to what he had said “years ago” comes in fact from the Peoria speech. The text there runs, “whether this [feeling against equality] accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals.”
The young Lincoln had said in his Lyceum speech of 1838 that our passions, our feelings, were to be the enemy of our freedom in the future, and that reason, “cold sober reason,” would be the friend of the principles of the Declaration. Only one feeling, an almost religious reverence for the founding ideals, would buttress that reason. It should also be pointed out that Lincoln said that he knew only that the feelings of his fellow citizens would not admit of equality. He was certain that there was an inequality of “color.” He did not say that he was certain of the infinitely more important inequality of “intellectual and moral endowments.” These he said, might be unequal... “perhaps.”
Let us be blunt; if Lincoln had taken the full position of equal social and political rights, he would not have been electable to any statewide office in Illinois, neither in 1854, when he sought election from the Illinois legislature to the U.S. Senate and nearly won, nor in 1858, when he and Douglas had their memorable debates. He would not have become president in 1860, nor would any member of his party who might take up the banner of full social and political equality. He accomplished the good that he could, always insisting on the fundamental principles that, in the fullness of time, would yield yet more perfect results.
His actions were those of a prudent physician. The patient was not ready for a regimen of body building until he had recovered from his deadly disease. That would come later. First life, then strength.
Word, words, words. “Mere words” men say, and yet it is by the power of words that we take common counsel and learn to govern ourselves. We are free because we are made in the image of the all-wise God, and we have a bit of His light in our minds, and by that bit we strive to live according to His laws, the “laws of nature, and of nature’s God.” Of divine things, St. Paul writes, “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear of him without a preacher?”
Lincoln preached in Peoria. He preached the political religion he had declared must be preached years ago in Springfield. Douglas and the doctrine of popular sovereignty were “giving up the OLD faith... ” Human equality and popular sovereignty were “as opposite as God and mammon...” Three times he calls the proposition that all men are created equal, the “ancient faith.” Of the Nebraska Bill he says, “It hath no relish of salvation in it.” He calls the Founders, “our revolutionary fathers,” and “the fathers of the republic,” stirring memories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He compares slavery to the fateful disobedience of Adam. He says: “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.”
Lincoln was like a great preacher in more than his scriptural language and his vision that the American Republic was founded on the Declaration as a kind of covenant or original creed, the “ancient faith.” He endeavored to emulate the charity of great preaching, too, as when he admitted that “the Southern people” were “just what we would be in their situation,” and when he said that “I surely will not blame them...” He stressed that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Fathers of the American covenant was “a Virginian by birth...a slaveholder...” He opened his speech by announcing that he did not “propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men...” He added that he wished “to be no less than national in all the positions” he would take. When he had suggested that “...a gradual emancipation might be adopted...”, he immediately added, “but for their tardiness in this I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.” Thus, to political faith, he added political charity.
The climax of the speech begins with “Our republican robe is soiled...” It ends with these words of salvation and hope, which we quote in full:
Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make and keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.
There is such a thing as good rhetoric; it demands justice on the part of the rhetorician; if he is a political rhetorician, it requires knowledge of political justice. It is not like cookery, but like medicine; it aims at healing the body politic, at least where that body is seriously ill. The answer to the question: “Who were you, Lincoln, what was your art and its power?” could be, “I was an American statesman, and I had the skill of a republican rhetorician. My call was to heal the American Republic. And I answered that call.
Streaming & downloadable audio
Receive lectures and talks via podcast!