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On the Verge of Greatness: Psychological Reflections on Lincoln at the Lyceum Charles B. Strozier On a chilly Saturday evening, January 27, 1838, at seven o'clock in Springfield, Illinois, the members of the local Young Men's Lyceum gathered in the Baptist Church at Seventh and Adams Streets, just a block from the new capítol that was under construction in the town's square.1 Abraham Lincoln, an ardent member of the Lyceum, that evening presented a speech he titled "On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions." Just shy of his twenty-eighth birthday, Lincoln chose the opportunity of the speech to reflect broadly on the issues of the day and define his political philosophy. He was by then accustomed to speechmaking, being Whig leader in the state legislature, serving out his third term. He was quite well known for his stand on a strong banking system, had played an instrumental role in moving the capítol to Springfield the previous year, and was generally bullish, if somewhat naively so, on what were called internal improvements or vast, state-supported projects like building roads and canals. But in none of these early speeches had Lincoln addressed the larger political and ethical meanings of contemporary events, something so characteristic of his later, great speeches, like the House Divided speech in 1858, Cooper Union in 1860, the First Inaugural in 1861, the Gettysburg Address in 1863, and the ' Mark Johnson, of the Illinois Preservation Agency, and Thomas F. Schwartz, Curator of the Lincoln Collection in the Illinois State Historical Library, helped me track down these details, which are based on clues in the Sangamo Journal, Paul Angle's Here I Have Lived: A History ofLincoln's Springfield (Chicago: Abraham Lincoln's Book Shop, 1935), and a general familiarity with the early history of Springfield. There are no surviving records of these meetings, but the Illinois State Historical Library does have the minutes from the debating society in nearby Petersburg form approximately the same period. One can guess from these minutes the range of topics discussed at the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield. Note also Donald M. Scott, "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," Journal of American History 66 (1980): 791-809. Civil War History, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, c 1990 by the Kent State University Press 138erra war history magnificent parting words of his Second Inaugural of 1865. The speech to the Lyceum is the first in this series of major addresses by Lincoln. For this reason alone, Lincoln's words merit careful attention. The Lyceum speech defines themes that echo throughout Lincoln's life. There he proclaims, perhaps a little grandly, his enduring political values. But there he also, as a young man in some personal crisis, wears his heart on his sleeve and speaks projectively of things outside the self that are in turmoil within. Perhaps the most important general point to note about Lincoln at the Lyceum is that he chose a speech to express his most profound reflections. It seems to me fairly certain that this mode of creativity derived from his special relationship with his biological mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. "God bless my mother," Lincoln told his law partner, William Herndon, in 1850. "All that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her."2 Though Nancy could only sign a mark for her name, she seemed to have a quality of mind that distinguished her in the frontier settings in which she lived. Lincoln himself, interestingly enough, told his law partner once that his mother was "an intellectual woman, sensitive and somewhat sad."3 Many of the contemporary observers whom that same law partner, William Herndon, interviewed later also called her "intellectual ." For example, Dennis Hanks, Lincoln's illegitimate cousin who lived with the family for about a year before Nancy died in 1818, said: "Lincoln's mother learned him to read the Bible___ "4 All this has influenced people like Carl Sandburg, who would have her reading the Bible to young Abraham—an unlikely though not impossible vision. Many children on the frontier learned to read but not to write. Even some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 137-148
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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