Abraham Lincoln
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Feb 1925, p. 64-79

MacNeill, Reverend John, Speaker
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A biography of Abraham Lincoln. The beginning and the close of Lincoln's life, coincident with the two great political upheavals of the nineteenth century. Jefferson's framing of the Constitution of the United States; his worst fears justified over the issue of slavery. What Lincoln was, and where he got that great word of wisdom for such a time into which he was born. Lincoln's education, his appearance, his early life. The situation in the United States when Lincoln reached the White House. The emergency that faced Lincoln at the opening of the Civil War; one of Lincoln's own stories. Lincoln's understanding of, and love for, the common people. Abraham Lincoln the man, his moral greatness, his intellectual greatness. Some of Lincoln's words from some famous addresses. Tests of moral courage of Lincoln; some anecdotes. The end of Lincoln's life.
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12 Feb 1925
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ABRAHAM LINCOLN AN ADDRESS BY REVEREND JOHN MACNEILL. Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, February 12, 1925.

PRESIDENT BURNS introduced the speaker who was received with applause.


Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Empire Club,--The beginning and the close of Lincoln's life coincided with the two great political upheavals of the nineteenth century. He was born February 12, 1809, a time of desperate crisis in Europe. The French Revolution was followed by the wars of Napoleon and in 1809 Europe was bleeding at every pore. It is hardly likely that the little family down in the back-woods of Kentucky were very much aware of the great events that rocked the foundations of the old world. But Lincoln was one of the great men who came to his birth at the time of crisis. Ruskin has declared that every great nation has learned its truth of word and strength of thought in war, that they have been nourished in war and wasted in peace, born in war and expired in peace. While it would be very difficult to defend that statement in all its applications, we must remember that in the first ten years of the last century from 1800 to 1810, or you might stretch it to 1815, Europe gave birth to almost every great man who was to guide the destinies of Europe in the century to come--in England, Disraeli, Gladstone, Cobden, Bright, Browning, Tennyson and a score of others were all born within ten years of one another; Italy in those same ten years gave birth to Cavour, Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Victor Emmanuel--perhaps the four men worth mentioning in one hundred years of Italian history--who brought about the unity of the Italian kingdom and secured the liberty of the Italian people. In those same ten years Bismarck was born in Germany, Victor Hugo in France, Liszt in Austria, Agassiz in Switzerland, and it seems as if the sorrows of the old world moved the womb of the new, and in the same decade there sprang to birth a galaxy of the greatest Americans this continent has ever produced--Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry T. Longfellow, and last and greatest of all, Abraham Lincoln--the crown and the flower of American manhood. (Applause)

The humble life that opened amid the great cataclysms of the old world passed away amidst the greatest cataclysm of the new. Thirty-three years before Lincoln's birth the thirteen American Colonies had revolted from Great Britain, a new Republic was set up, the Declaration of Independence was issued, and the War of the Revolution fought through to victory. To use Lincoln's great phrase, there was born "upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the great proposition that all men are created equal." The builders of the Constitution set about their task. They took the wrecks of the past for their warning. They took the solid gains of liberty in the old land for their heritage. They washed the gold of political wisdom from the sands of every nation in history, as Bancroft says. All the hereditary institutions of the old land which they regarded as a menace to freedom were cast aside. There was to be no hereditary monarchy-no monarchy at all; no hereditary titles-no titles at all; no hereditary seats of government--no House of Lords at all. But they preserved in their life one hereditary institution which went far back into colonial days. One hundred years before the Civil War, the ancient institution of slavery had fastened itself upon the vitals of the nation like a growing cancer. It was a political issue, a moral issue, a social issue, an economic issue.

When Jefferson framed the Constitution of the United States he strove very hard to make that hated thing contrary to law. But the forces arrayed against him were far too great. There were those who shrank from the surgery necessary to cut that cancer out of the nation. The day came when it cost them one million lives and five thousand million dollars to perform the operation. Jefferson saw the terrible possibilities that lay ahead, and died despairing of the Constitution he had helped to frame. Almost his last sentence was, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his justice will not sleep for ever."

The worst fears of Jefferson were fully justified. The issue sharpened as the years went by, especially with the coming of any new State into the Union, for the question was whether it would be slave or free. The slave interests were determined to extend their rights into the new territories. I need not go into the history of the Missouri compromise and its repeal in 1820, the Fugitive Slave Bill, the famous Dred ease when the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a decision that a fugitive slave must go back. I need not refer to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and the famous raid on Harper's Ferry led by John Brown who was regarded as a political fanatic, whose execution set the whole country in a flame. "John Brown's body lay moulddering in the grave but his soul went marching on."

It was in the midst of all that clatter and confusion of tongues that there appeared in the Northern camp, as Watterson says, "the oddest figure imaginable." He looked like a backwoodsman but he had a serious aspect and wore an air of command. He paused for a moment and uttered one sentence and then passed on his way to disappear for a little while from public view. That man had on him a divine commission and that sentence had in it the seed of a new day-albeit that seed had to be nourished in blood-and this was the sentence: "A house divided against itself cannot stand; I do not believe that this government can permanently endure half slave and half free. I do not expect to see the Union dissolve, I do not expect to see the house fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided." (Applause)

Now who was that man and where did he get that great word of wisdom for such a time as that? Nearly all the great forces, like hereditary and environment, nationality and training, by which we try to account for our men of genius, fail us either singly or combined in the case of Lincoln. He was born on a barren farm in the backwoods of Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, to the end of his life could neither read nor write; he was shiftless and improvident, always moving on to a supposedly better farm but always with a mortgage hanging over him. The boy's mother was Nancy Hanks, and she died when he was eight years of age. The father married again, a Mrs. Johnson, who proved to be a good step-mother to the child; but it was back to his mother that Lincoln's memory turned. She was a woman of great strength of mind and sterling quality of life, and Lincoln says that all that he was he owed to her. Such a tribute from such a son may well throw a mantle of charity over any alleged stigma that may attach itself to her name. (Applause)

His education did not total twelve months at school in his whole lifetime. There were six books in the family library--the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Aespo's Fables, the History of the United States and the Life of George Washington; but the boy devoured them, reading them mostly before the light of the fire, because he had no other light, until they entered into the very marrow of his soul.

His appearance could hardly be called A great asset to Lincoln. He was tall, six feet four inches in his stockings at seventeen years of age. He was gaunt and raw-boned, with high cheek bones, coarse black hair and steel grey eyes. His long legs and arms gave him a very awkward appearance on the platform. But he had his own opinion about the length of a man's legs, and when he was asked what was the proper length of a man's legs in relation to his body, he replied that he always thought that when a man stood up his legs ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground. (Laughter)

As a young man Lincoln lived in the most primitive surroundings. He worked on a farm, he hired out to the neighbors, he made two trips down the Mississippi on a cargo boat when he was in his 'teens. At the age of twenty-three he joined the volunteers in the Black Hawk Indian War. At twenty-five he was in the Legislature, at twenty-seven he was admitted to the bar, at thirty-three he married Mary Todd. In 1858 he opposed Judge Douglas for the senatorship of Illinois, and it was that campaign in a great series of public debates between himself and Judge Douglas that laid the foundation of Lincoln's great political career, and that gave such a wonderful exposition of the issues that were before the nation. He deliberately insured his defeat on that occasion for the senatorship by the stand he took with reference to slavery, but he was clever enough to drive Douglas into a declaration of his position that made it impossible for him ever to be a candidate for the Presidency, because he angered the South while he tried to please the North. Lincoln sacrificed the senatorship for the sake of something greater that was ahead. He became the Republican candidate for the Presidency, and in 1860 was nominated at the great convention at Chicago, elected that year, and in 1861 went to the White House to the greatest task that has ever fallen to the hands of any man in this Western World.

When Lincoln reached the White House there was nothing wanting to precipitate a civil war except some act of aggression on the part of the South, and that soon came. Seven days after he took the oath of office, on the 4th of March, the Southern States that had already broken away were organized into a Confederacy with Jefferson Davis as their President. A new constitution was framed, and a month later the Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumpter. The flag of the Union was fired upon; and to avenge the insult and save the Union the North sprang to arms, and the war of brothers was on.

It is almost impossible to magnify the emergency that faced Lincoln at the opening of the Civil War. Here I am reminded of one of his own stories. When he was a struggling lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, a business firm in the East wrote him asking him to asscertain the material resources of a certain Mr. Brown, a fellow-citizen, with whom they had had some dealings, and Lincoln sent back this characteristic answer: "I am well acquainted with Mr. Brown and know his circumstances. He has a wife and baby that ought to be worth at least $50,000 to any man, and he has a table in his office worth $1.50, and three chairs worth, say $1.00, and in the corner there is a large rat hole that would bear looking into." Now, when he took an inventory of the national life at the opening of the Civil War it was not at all promising. It is true that he had the common people, his national wife and family. You might say that was his greatest asset. He never lost that. Lincoln understood the common people, he loved the common people, he came from the common people. He used to say that he thought that the Lord liked the common people because he made so many of them. As the time went on the common people gradually and surely came to see his greatness; they sensed his moral soundness, they believed in his sincerity, they were prepared to trust his judgment. All through those terrible years he became a kind of public conscience to the common people. At first they called him "Honest Abe"; by and by they changed that title to "Uncle Abe"; then he became "Father Abraham," for he was the true father of his people. Some of you will recall the last great appeal Lincoln made to the nation for volunteers to close the war. They answered it with a slogan that became a war-word of the nation, coming down to our day--"We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong." But so far as the national treasury was concerned it was practically empty, hardly $1.50 to conduct the Civil War, and there was that ghastly hole in the South down which they would pour a priceless stream of blood and treasure for the next four years.

I must pass over a great deal of the history for lack of time, but think of the task! Here was Lincoln, a crude country lawyer, it would appear, who had to face this tremendous issue. He had to create a national army and navy. He had to reorganize the public service that was honeycombed with treason. He had to meet his open enemies and he had to countermine the plans of secret foes. He had to meet the skill of the diplomat in the old land, and to expound the public cause to the nation. He had to hold his own party together. He had to hold the support of the Democrat party for the war. He had to curb the ambitions of his own Cabinet. At the very beginning of Lincoln's Presidential career, Seward sent a memorandum to him in which he set forth what he believed ought to be the policy of the future. He could hardly have been more insulting or more explicit if he had said, "Mr. Lincoln, you will be a failure as a President, but if will be all safe if you hand it over to my keeping." Lincoln's reply was a masterpiece of fairness and kindness, of rebuke and tactfulness. There is no place where Lincoln's greatness shines as it does in the combination of fairness and kindness with tact and skill by which he held together all the great forces that he needed and whose co-operation was absolutely essential to the success of the cause.

I have no desire to review the history of those four years except as they may form a background for us to see his intellectual greatness on the one hand and his moral greatness on the other. The grasp of Lincoln's mind may be seen in the repeated expositions of the issue that was before the life of the nation and mind you it was a confused and confusing issue. The ordinary mind found it very hard to thread its way through the constitutional tangle, because slavery was endorsed by the Constitution and the States that clung to slavery stood upon their constitutional rights. Lincoln never denied them that right, but he did deny their right to extend slavery into new territory. Lincoln never denied any State the right to enter the Union, but he did deny them the right to withdraw from the Union. He believed in the perpetuity of the Union; that was the guiding star of his policy all the way through. Many of us in a superficial reading of Lincoln's life may think that his great object was to abolish slavery; it was nothing of the kind. His great ambition was to save the Union; the abolition of slavery was a secondary issue which was tributary to that great idea he had in mind. As time went on it proved that his thinking was sound along these lines. Of course it exposed him to extremists of both sides. The extreme abolitionists on the one hand demanded the immediate and universal emancipation of the slaves--but Lincoln knew that such a step immediately would destroy the Union; then there were the slave interests that claimed the right to extend slavery into new territory--but he knew that that also would destroy the Union. Horace Greely, the editor of the New York Tribune, launched a very severe attack against Lincoln in the summer of 1862 on account of what he thought was Lincoln's bias in favour of slavery. Lincoln answered him and his reply was final and convincing. He said, "My prime aim is to save the Union. If I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves I would do it. If I could save the Union by freeing none of the slaves, I would do that. If I could save the Union by freeing some and retaining others, I would do that also. I shall adopt new views as fast as. I find them to be true views."

Time proved that this was the only basis on which the war could be fought successfully; because Lincoln had to hold the North solidly; he had if possible to hold those border States that might turn the balance either way; and he had to leave the door open for the rebel States of the South to come back again into the family fold. Surely it was providential that in the great hour of crisis, with those confused and confusing issues, there was a man at the helm whose mind was clear as crystal and whose thinking was as honest as true. (Applause)

I will not deal further with the intellectual life of Lincoln beyond one word as to his wonderful literary style. Where did this backwoodsman get his matchless literary style? He got it in the severest discipline of his mind from the very beginning. Early in his life he learned how to value words. He used to write them out on an' old piece of brown paper with a piece of charcoal because he had no pencil, or on a shingle, or on the smooth side of a wooden shovel. Listen to his first political speech: "You all know who I am; I am humble Abraham Lincoln, and I am a candidate for the Legislature. My policies are short and sweet, like the old woman's dance. I am in favor of so-and-so; if I am elected I will be thankful; and if not it will be all the same." (Laughter) It was all the same with them and they didn't elect him.

But it was a long step from that to the stately prose poems of the first and second inaugurals or that memorable speech at Gettysburg, or the matchless letter that he sent to Mrs. Bixby of Boston in her bereavement.

Take those wonderful closing sentences from the second inaugural: -"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish this work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan, and to do all that may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace."

Some of you know by heart the wonderful address at Gettysburg, at the dedication of the battle-field there--the burial place of both the blue and the grey. It is said that Lincoln prepared that speech on the way out from Washington to Gettysburg, and scribbled it in the corner seat of the train with the stub of a pencil on a bit of paper his long arm had rescued from the opposite seat. It occupied just two minutes to deliver, while Edward Everett, the chosen orator of the occasion, spoke for more than two hours. You remember how it opened:--

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can longer endure." And on to this great closing sentence:--

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

But great as the intellectual qualities of Lincoln were, I think they were overshadowed by the tremendous moral qualities the man revealed. There has been a great deal of debate as to Lincoln's moral life, and there has been an occasional suggestion that he was an infidel, one reason being that Lincoln never became a member of the Church, although he attended worship both in Springfield and Washington, and it is said he went very often to the mid-week prayer-meeting in time of great stress that he might strengthen the moral purposes of his life. The other reason was that Lincoln told a great many stories that were not all Sunday school stories (Laughter) and that grated on the conscience of many righteous and pious people; yet the cultured men of Lincoln's Cabinet felt that he was a man of pure mind and clean heart, and he would never tell a story for the sake of its uncleanness. Well, a man's life can never be judged by that standard. These are simply the bubbles, the bits of foam, that float upon the surface of the great stream of his moral life. Lincoln reminds me of one of the Old Testament prophets, and if I were asked to express his religious and moral life in one sentence I would answer, "What does God desire of thee but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."

It is hard to believe that Lincoln is to be classed among infidels when you read his last address to the people of Springfield when he was on his way to the White House, never to see them again. He spoke from the back of the car before the train moved out--

"My friends, no one not in my position can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people I owe everything. Here I have lived for a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who has ever attended me I cannot succeed; with that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will be yet well. To His care commending you, as I hope you in your prayers will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."

The moral quality of the man came to its great test in those four years of strain through which he passed. In the first year there was no victory for the North, but heart-breaking defeats that came in quick succession. From the beginning the South had at least five great generals in the war. Two of them stood in the very front rank as military men-Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. It was not so with the North. In the army of the Potomac alone the command passed from Scott to McClellan, from McClellan to Pope, to McClellan again, then to Burnside, then to Hooker, then to Meade, then to Grant. Three years had gone by before the North found a man who could organize victory. But even then there were severe criticism of the plodding methods of Grant. Grant, however, got them through to victory. I need not tell you that at a time like that it is upon the head of the nation that the storm of anger breaks. The air was full of shafts of poison, and a myriad voices were loosed against Lincoln. Let me put briefly the attitude of Lincoln in the face of it all: With the press misrepresenting him, his friends faltering, his enemies jeering, his Union scattered, with the army meeting reverse after reverse, with the forces of slavery winning victory after victory, with treason in his Cabinet, with the sight of the dead in his eyes and the groans of the dying in his ears, his own heart torn and bleeding; yet you will search the records in vain to find one word of hate, one sentence of harshness, one epithet of bitterness in all the records of those matchless years.

But it was rather the failure of generals, not the loss of battles, that put the supreme test on the moral courage of Lincoln. There is no test like the test of waiting-waiting till the time is ripe, waiting for the hour to strike. Lincoln used to tell a story of one of his election campaigns, when he went to hire a horse and buggy to drive into the country, but the livery-keeper, who was a political opponent of Lincoln, gave him the worst old plug in the stable, and Lincoln had a hard struggle to arrive at his meeting in time. On his return he asked the liveryman if he used the old horse for funerals, and when he answered in the negative Lincoln remarked, "Well, I am greatly relieved to know that, because I am afraid if you did he would not get the corpse there in time for the resurrection." (Laughter) Lincoln got his nation there in time for the Resurrection, and the trumpet-blast that sounded the Resurrection for the nation was the Proclamation that emancipated 4,000,000 slaves.

When the news of the second defeat at Bull Run reached England in the summer of 1862, Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary, told the Premier, Lord Palmerston, that he felt sure that the North would never win, and he suggested that the time had come when Britain should officially recognize the Confederacy of the South and take steps to mediate for peace. Two months later, however, the turn of events came. Five days after the battle of Antietam Lincoln set his hand to the proclamation of emancipation. He had drafted it in private and he called his Cabinet together and said to them, "I have asked you to come here not to get your comment upon this, because I take the full responsibility of it myself"; and he told them "I made a promise to myself"--and then he hesitated a moment "and to my God, that when the State of Maryland was clear of the Southern armies I would issue this proclamation"--and he did. It was the masterstroke of the war. It brought the whole moral sentiment of the world to his side, and from that time on no self-respecting, liberty-loving nation could withhold its moral support from the North.

Many of you will remember the story that when Lincoln, as a boy, went down the Mississippi on one of those cargo boats as a deck-hand, he saw in New Orleans an auction sale of slaves; he saw babes torn from their mothers' breasts; he saw young negro girls trotted back and forth like horses to display their qualities before their respective buyers. The soul of Lincoln revolted against it all. It created a moral horror within him, and he said, "My God, boys, let us get away from this; but if ever I get a chance to hit this thing I will hit it hard. And he did hit it, and hit it hard. He annihilated slavery on this continent; and I might adapt the words which O'Connell applied to WiIberforce, he went to heaven with the broken shackles of 4,000,000 slaves dangling at his girdle; and, lest they should be forged again upon earth, before he passed in through the shining gates he turned to cast those broken fetters down to the pit of hell out of which they came, and from which they would never again return. (Applause)

But it cost him his life. Lincoln was shot to his death on the 14th April, 1865, in a box at Ford's Theatre in Washington, where he had gone to wit, ness the play of "Our American Cousins." The war was almost over; almost the last shot had been fired. The gallant Lee had surrendered his sword to Grant at Appomattox; the army of Jackson was surrounded in the South and was just waiting for his surrender to avoid bloodshed. Richmond, the capital of the South, had fallen. %Lincoln had been returned for a second term, stronger than ever in the hearts of the people. He felt now that he could undertake to bind up the nation's wounds, and do perhaps his greatest lifework. It looked as if the crown of glory was awaiting him, but it was the crown of martyrdom. By his side in the box that night sat Mrs. Lincoln, proud and happy. With them was Major Rathbone and his fiancee, Miss Harris. The play was almost over. At ten o'clock there stole into the box from behind, a political fanatic, his brain morbid with hate and brandy. It was John Wilkes Booth, himself a noted actor and the brother of the great tragedian, Edwin Booth. Without a moment's warning he fired a shot from his pistol into Lincoln's head; then putting his hands upon the front of the box he leapt from the box to the stage, breaking a small ankle-bone in the fall, turned to the horrified audience that sat dumb with terror, and shouted the Latin motto of Virginia--"Sic semper tyrannis!"--Thus always to tyrants!"-bolted through the stage door, leapt on a horse that was waiting in the lane, and escaped into the night.

It would seem as if the blackest fate pursued everyone who was in that box that night. Mrs. Lincoln passed the rest of her life in melancholy that merged at times into insanity. The young lady was slain at the hands of her lover, who in turn took his own life, a raving maniac. John Wilkes Booth wandered for weeks as a fugitive from justice, a price upon his head, the stain of murder on his soul and the curse of the world upon his name, only to die at last like a dog, in a burning barn where he was surrounded by his pursuers.

Lincoln was carried from the theatre into a house near by, and lingered unconscious till the morning. The members of his family were around him; some members of his Cabinet were present. The tense silence that followed the moment of death was broken by Stanton in the memorable words--"Now he belongs to the ages!"

We shall leave him here, gentlemen; Lincoln belongs not to an age but to the ages; not to a nation, but to the nations; not to a people but to the race. He is the child of America, but he is the offspring of all mankind. To my mind he is the finest flower of democracy that has ever grown in this Western world; and his providential appearance at that great crisis is surely proof enough, if proof were needed, that the Divine hand moves in the midst of history; and, to use the words of Lowell:

"There standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own."

(Loud applause, the audience rising and cheering) MR. JUSTICE RIDDELL expressed the thanks of the Club for the inspiring address.

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Abraham Lincoln

A biography of Abraham Lincoln. The beginning and the close of Lincoln's life, coincident with the two great political upheavals of the nineteenth century. Jefferson's framing of the Constitution of the United States; his worst fears justified over the issue of slavery. What Lincoln was, and where he got that great word of wisdom for such a time into which he was born. Lincoln's education, his appearance, his early life. The situation in the United States when Lincoln reached the White House. The emergency that faced Lincoln at the opening of the Civil War; one of Lincoln's own stories. Lincoln's understanding of, and love for, the common people. Abraham Lincoln the man, his moral greatness, his intellectual greatness. Some of Lincoln's words from some famous addresses. Tests of moral courage of Lincoln; some anecdotes. The end of Lincoln's life.