Friday, February 12, 2010

"Groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong"

I dislike "Presidents' Day." Firstly, because I do not celebrate all of our Presidents. Secondly, because I don't think creating three day weekends is a sufficient justification for messing up legitimate and important national commemorations. Their birthdays were appropriate times to honor Washington and Lincoln. Today is Lincoln's birthday.

Early in 1860 Abraham Lincoln traveled east to New York City. He had been invited to deliver a speech. He was not yet the Republican candidate for President, but this effort would introduce him in the east, and, as it happened, greatly increase his credibility as a candidate. The issue was, as it had been for years, whether slavery could be extended into the territories. For those on both sides of the question, the issue was crucial. The Senate was evenly balanced with an equal number of Senators from slave states and free states. As territories became states it became increasingly likely an abolitionist majority would take control. Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery — although not its immediate abolition where it already existed — and everyone knew his position would result in eventual, but inevitable, abolition. The speech was delivered at the Cooper Union on February 27, and is thus known as the "Cooper Union Address"
An eyewitness that evening said, "When Lincoln rose to speak, I was greatly disappointed. He was tall, tall, — oh, how tall! and so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man." However, once Lincoln warmed up, "his face lighted up as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man."
.... If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality — its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension — its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored — contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man — such as a policy of "don't care" on a question about which all true men do care — such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance — such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address