Book Review: Lincoln At Peoria

Lincoln At Peoria: The Turning Point, by Lewis E. Lehrman

As a fond reader of books about Abraham Lincoln, and someone who in many ways has viewed his rise from obscurity and poverty to positions of honor as a model for my own life, given our similar struggles in certain respects [1], I am not only fond of reading books by Abraham Lincoln but also particularly fond of reading books that seek to analyze his speeches and capture what can be learned from him by those of us who wish to speak and write with the same high-minded and passionately logical focus as Lincoln. This book is a good one, in that it manages to find a niche in focusing on one of Lincoln’s more obscure but greatly worthwhile speeches. It has become a cottage industry of sorts for various writers to look at different major speeches of Lincoln and to write definitive works about these speeches that place them firmly within the canon of American historiography and a study of the best models of our political discourse, and this speech finds Lincoln at a key moment in Lincoln’s life. The author has chosen well in making this particular speech the subject of his worthy skills at historical analysis.

It is worthwhile to comment at least a little bit about what made Peoria, the shortened reference for the various speeches that were made at Springfield, Peoria, and elsewhere on the Illinois prairie during the election campaign of 1854 that marked Lincoln’s return to politics after a five-year hiatus, a turning point. For one, it makes the beginning of Lincoln’s second act as a politician. In the first act, which began about 1832 or so and went on until 1849, Lincoln first won the support of his fellow citizens of New Salem and then served four terms in the Illinois legislature and one memorable term in the U.S. House of Representatives as a partisan Whig opposing the Democratic Party, engaging in the usual harsh discourse of partisan politicians. Peoria marks the start of Lincoln’s second career as a politician, one that is marked by Lincoln being a high-minded but intensely practical political philosopher whose Euclidian and immensely lawyerly defenses of the implications of the Declaration of Independence gave him the standing and gravitas to serve as the defender of the Union during our country’s darkest hours so far.

In a very well organized and graciously written book full of praise (and some critique) for other scholars, this book shows why Peoria was such an achievement. The five years spent on hiatus as the Whig Party fell apart and as Lincoln developed practical expertise as an attorney, developing his craft as a stirring courtroom advocate gave him the focus that helped him craft the same kind of arguments that would later make him our nation’s greatest president in speeches and letters where pragmatic conservatism was blend with high-minded idealism in precise balance and excellent proportion. This book is organized well for its task: it begins with a look at Lincoln and Douglas in their early years and the precise context in which the Peoria speech was given. Then there is a chapter on the 1854 campaign as a whole and the place of the similar speeches within it. Then Lehrman takes a step back and looks at the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Acts, including what Douglas sought to gain and what the South demanded. Then there is a close analysis of the ideas and arguments in the Peoria Speech itself, followed by a look at the road from Peoria that demonstrated the value of the speech and Lincoln’s increased standing as a result of it. Then there is a chapter on how the Peoria speech gave Lincoln the grounds and the right approach for taking on a tyrannical Supreme Court in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision, followed by a look at how the Peoria speech characterized Lincoln’s presidency in its themes and approach, a brief conclusion that summarizes and repeats the author’s points, and an analysis of what scholars have seen in the Peoria speech, followed by the full speech at Peoria (which comes in at about 17,000 words or so), a lengthy and gracious acknowledgements section, and a chronology of the important life events for both Lincoln and Douglas and the usual scholarly apparatus of notes and bibliography and index.

This book is not only an excellent analysis of a speech that is largely ignored outside of Jaffa’s masterful work Crisis Of The House Divided, but it also manages to convey some of the qualities that made Abraham Lincoln a great man, worthy of emulation. There was his combination of high ideals and principles with a compassionate understanding of practical realities, there was his ability to combine intense personal ambition with a self-sacrificial attitude of service to others, an ability to combine immense drive with a graciousness towards political enemies, an ability to combine great intellectual achievement with a humility born out of a humble personal background, and the sort of personal experience with abuse and exploitation that gave him a strong empathy towards other suffering and exploited people. This is not a very common combination of traits, but it was one that allowed Lincoln the opportunity to serve, at the cost of his life, during a time when the United States faced the grave threat of being either entirely swallowed up by the evil of slavery or rent in two by the threat of rebellion and civil war. Our time is not without such dangers and threats, but do we have the mix of high-minded compassion even for our enemies, those who hate and revile us, and conviction in our own principles, so that we may be people of honor and courage in our own times of crisis and difficulty?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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