Book Review: Diana Schaub, His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation

Diana Schaub, His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation

Reviewed by Burrus Carnahan

Diana Schaub has written a thought-provoking book that may be the first of a new genre of Lincoln studies – reflections on his ideas in the context of the mob violence that struck major cities in 2020 and the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The author begins with Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum speech on “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” a meditation on mob violence in his era. She links the three orations she covers to the years 1787, 1776, and 1619. The Lyceum Address was thus intended to reinforce the legal regime established by the 1787 Constitution. The Gettysburg Address reaffirmed the calls for liberty and equality in the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Finally, the Second Inaugural presented Lincoln’s own “1619 Project” on the historical importance of American slavery.

The Lyceum speech is usually considered unsophisticated and not one of Lincoln’s best speeches. Schaub convincingly argues, however, that it reflects key themes that would recur throughout his career, including survival of democratic institutions, the tension between reason and emotion, and the importance of public opinion.

After reviewing recent lynchings and other incidents of vigilante justice, the young Lincoln argued such acts were wrong both for humanitarian reasons and in the interests of the rioters themselves. In an early example of his ability to set aside his own beliefs and understand the position of his adversaries, he recognized that vigilantes often acted with the worthy goal of seeing wrongdoers punished. Nevertheless, mob actions weakened respect for the rule of law, and could pave the way for an ambitious leader to overthrow the Constitution and seize absolute power.

Lincoln’s answer was twofold. He called for the public to turn way from “passion,” a term, the author notes, that had negative connotations for Lincoln throughout his life, and to embrace “cold, calculating reason.” “A passionate and impassioning politics is likely to be divisive,” Schaub notes. “From the Lyceum Address through to the Second Inaugural, Lincoln rejects attempts to impassion political life.”

Lincoln also called for schools, parents and other authority figures to inculcate “reverence” for the laws and hoped this reverence would become the “political religion” of America. Schaub believes that the call for reverence is intertwined with the call for reason. “In Lincoln’s usage, reverence is not a passion,” she writes. “Political reverence is itself an instantiation of reason – a mold that reason can be poured into or a form that reason can take.”

The author does not, however, explain how reason leads to reverence for laws and institutions. Since Lincoln’s time, psychology has denigrated the role of reasoning in our decisions. Rather than reason, we are told, human choices are likely to be based on the unconscious mind (for followers of Freud and Jung) or operant conditioning (for behavioral psychologists). Lincoln himself seems to rely not on reason but on the urging of authority figures, like teachers and parents, to produce public reverence. Just as Pavlov’s dogs started to salivate when they heard a bell signaling food, so citizens should feel reverence whenever they think of the law, based on their past conditioning. The problem is that if political reverence is a mold, then passions, such as racial prejudice, might be poured into it instead of reason.

The author indirectly acknowledges that reverence for the law can have undesirable results when she criticizes the Lyceum Address for not allowing civil disobedience against bad laws. In the Address, Lincoln argues that even bad laws should be obeyed. He later supported enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, although he believed it denied due process to alleged fugitives. The author cannot help wondering, however, what “Lincoln would have done had the runaway appeared at his own door.” “Would he,” she asks, “have found a way to turn the blind eye of justice upon the situation rather than the peering eye of the law?”An incident from Lincoln’s Illinois law practice suggests he might indeed have turned a blind eye. In 1857 Lincoln represented Mrs. Melissa Goings, charged with murdering her abusive husband by hitting him in the head with a piece of firewood during an argument. After she pleaded not guilty Lincoln requested a brief recess so he could consult with his client. When the court reconvened, Lincoln appeared but not the defendant, who resurfaced in California years later. It appears likely that Lincoln suspected she was going to flee and, out of sympathy with an elderly battered woman, made no effort to stop her or help the authorities apprehend her.

Though the author does not mention it in this context, there was at least one instance when President Lincoln decided to ignore bad laws. After decades of respecting slavery laws in the states where they existed, Lincoln ordered the military to ignore those laws in his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. He justified those orders under the laws of war, as necessary to enforce a higher law, the Constitution of the United States. Although not civil disobedience, issuing the Proclamation was similar in principle to the civil rights demonstrators who violated segregation laws in the name of a higher law, the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection of the laws.

The author finds many of the themes in the Lyceum Address reflected in the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. With its call for a new birth of freedom and dedication to equality, the author naturally links the Gettysburg Address to 1776. With secession, the lawlessness decried in the Lyceum Address had become “suicidal,” but she finds continuity with the earlier speech its description of self-government based on equality as a “proposition” that must continually be re-proven.

There is also continuity in Lincoln’s rejection of passion by refusing to condemn the Confederate invasion or the men in Lee’s army. The author believes the president was looking ahead to the end of the war by not placing needless emotional obstacles to acceptance of Union victory.

Lincoln continues his passionless approach in the Second Inaugural, discouraging Union triumphalism, and offering the South an historical account of slavery that blamed both the free and slave states for an offense against God. If southern whites refused to accept reunion on the basis of equality for former slaves, the author argues that the Second Inaugural at least offered freedmen assurance that God had been on their side in the past and would be again in future struggles for equality.
Schaub calls the Second Inaugural’s account of American slavery Lincoln’s “1619 Project.” By referring to the bondsman’s “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” Lincoln recognized the importance of that date long before the New York Times did. Lincoln’s historical project is superior to the Times’ project, in the author’s view, not because the latter stresses the importance of 1619, but because it insists on the unimportance of “1776, 1787 and even 1865.” “1776 was not a continuation of the spirit of 1619, but its antithesis.” The 1787 Constitution, Schaub argues, should be read as an anti-slavery document, a position historically associated with both Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and most recently advanced by the historian James Oakes.

This short, clearly-written book offers original insight into three Lincoln documents that most of us probably thought we had already mastered. All who are interested in Lincoln and his era will find it interesting and stimulating.


Burrus M. Carnahan is Adjunct Professor of Law at George Washington University.