The newly elected and established politicians seem to be at loggerheads over the correct course of action. The country is in a dire state of affairs and it may get worse real fast. What to do? Here’s some advice from one of the Founders of the Republican Party and the first Republican president—Abraham Lincoln.
“Right and wrong is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield? 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?”
Let us not grope for some middle ground between right and wrong. Let us not search in vain for a policy of don’t care on a question about which we do care. Nor let us be frightened by threats of destruction to the government.”
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!”
This is from a speech he gave well before his nomination. At the time, he was a little known regional politician from Springfield, Illinois. The Republican Party was new, and had failed running national hero John C. Frémont for president in 1856. Abraham Lincoln chances of ascending to the presidency under a Republican banner were slight. All that changed in New York City on February 27, 1860. That afternoon, Lincoln had his photograph taken by Mathew Brady, and in the evening, he gave this historic speech at the Cooper Union.
It was a dramatic speech, and it was exceptionally well received. When Lincoln stepped back from the podium after his right makes might conclusion, the Cooper Union Great Hall exploded with noise and motion. Everybody stood. The staid New York audience cheered, clapped, and stomped their feet. Many waved handkerchiefs and hats. Abraham Lincoln had catapulted himself to be a contender for the nomination of his party. Lincoln often said that Brady’s photograph and his speech at the Cooper Union propelled him into the presidency.
What was so great about his Cooper Union address? It was earth-moving because it was highly unusual. It was a call for his party to stand on principle—God’s principles, the Founders’ principles, and the principles of the Republican Party.
The South was threatening to destroy the nation over slavery. Lincoln spent much of this speech explaining what the Founders would think about extending slavery into the territories. Lincoln used the Founders’ own words and votes to show that they actually opposed the expansion of slavery. (Words and actions are a more reliable guide to the Founders’ thinking than secondary sources. Abraham Lincoln taught us that.)
Great leaders speak and act on principle. The moral of this story is that people will not only follow a principled leader, they will labor mightily in a principled cause.
We the People are more than eager for principled leadership, we demand it. If it’s not forthcoming from our currently elected representatives, then we’ll get it from their replacements.
James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention.