I’ve been making my way slowly through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln this summer, and yesterday I re-read a speech that I’ve known for years, only this time I read it against the backdrop of this year’s interminable presidential campaign and the schoolyard name-calling that passes for serious political debate in 2016. The speech is what is known as Lincoln’s “Cooper Union Address,” a talk that he made at a prominent lecture hall in New York City in February 1860, four months before the Illinois Republican received his party’s nomination for president.
As a historian, I am reflexively suspicious of supposed “golden ages” in the past, and when talking heads look solemnly into the camera and lament how far we have fallen from the civil discourse of past eras, I instinctively groan. And yet, as I re-read Lincoln’s speech—a speech that introduced Lincoln to eastern audiences and transformed him into a serious contender for the presidency—I was repeatedly struck by the charity, humility, and civility that permeated it. Here are just two examples:
First, in speaking figuratively to white Southerners (there were few, if any, in the audience), Lincoln began with this acknowledgement: “I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any people.” This echoed a familiar refrain in Lincoln’s speeches of the late 1850s, as he repeatedly, pointedly refused to characterize the southerners who vilified the Republican Party as either malevolent or misinformed.
“I have constantly declared, as I really believed,” Lincoln told an Illinois audience in October 1858, that “the only difference between them [the white South] and us, is the difference of circumstances.” In an 1859 speech in Dayton, Ohio, Lincoln again used the rhetorical device of addressing the South with this promise: “We mean to remember that you [Southerners] are as good as we; that there is no difference between us other than the difference of circumstances. We mean to recognize and bear in mind always that you have as good hearts in your bosoms as other people, or as we claim to have.”
Almost no southerners heard these disclaimers, as Lincoln surely understood, but in making them, he was indirectly admonishing his northern followers to avoid self-righteousness. Lincoln was not arguing the moral equivalence of the two political factions. He made no bones about his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political wrong,” but he simultaneously refused to portray antislavery advocates as morally superior to slavery’s defenders.
Second, in speaking to northern Republicans, Lincoln imparted this advice:
It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, with one another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.
The current Republican nominee claims to admire Lincoln, explaining to Bob Woodward that Lincoln “did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time,” whatever that means. What is more, Trump has touted his ability to be “as presidential” as Lincoln, or nearly so. Is it possible to imagine the current nominee following Lincoln’s example in either respect?
In fairness to Trump, his caustic, defamatory, polarizing anti-intellectual rhetoric is but an extreme example of the general tenor of partisan debate in our time. Each party portrays the other as a combination of evil leaders and stupid followers. What is destroyed in these characterizations is the possibility of what political scientists call “persuasive engagement,” the potential for rational argument in which each side respects the other and can conceive of some sort of compromise in which both sides benefit.
One hundred and fifty-six years ago, Lincoln implored his southern critics to be open to persuasive engagement. Let the battle be over principles, not personalities, he exhorted them. Above all, “meet us as if it were possible that something may be said on our side.” The first step to constructive political dialogue, in other words, is humility, a willingness to acknowledge that no single party has a monopoly on wisdom and virtue. Not bad advice.