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on the verge of greatness 31 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 newcapitol thatwas 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 capitol to Springfield the previous year, and 31 E 1. Mark Johnson, of the illinois Preservation Agency, and Thomas F. Schwartz, Curator of the Lincoln Collection in the illinois State Historical Library, helped me trackdown these details,which arebasedoncluesintheSangamo Journal,PaulAngle’sHereiHaveLived:AHistoryof Lincoln’sSpring field (Chicago: Abraham Lincoln’s Book Shop, 1935), and a general familiarity with the early history of Springfield.There are nosurviving recordsof these meetings, butthe illinois State Historical Library does have the minutes from the debating society in nearby Petersburg from 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 © 1990 by The kent State university Press In order to view this proof accurately, the Overprint Preview Option must be checked in Acrobat Professional or Adobe Reader. Please contact your Customer Service Representative if you have questions about finding the option. Job Name: -- /358884t 32 charles b. strozier 2.William H. Herndon and JesseW.Weik, Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M.Angle (Cleveland:World Publishing, 1930), 2–3. note also three Herndon letters toWard Hill Lamon, Feb. 28, 1869, Feb. 25, 1870, and Mar. 6, 1870.The original of these letters are in the Lamon Collection of the Huntington Library, Huntington, California, but they have also been published in emmanuel Hertz, ed. The Hidden Lincoln (new York: viking Press, 1938), 59, 62–72. 3. Herndon to Jesse Weik, Jan. 19, 1886. The original is in the Herndon/Weik Collection of the Library of Congress, but a published version is available in Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, 139. 4. Dennis F. Hanks statement to William H. Herndon, June 13, 1865. The original is in the Herndon/Weik Collection; see also Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, 276. 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 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. Perhapsthe mostimportantgeneral pointtonote aboutLincoln atthe Lyceum is that he chose a speech to express his most profound reflections. it seems to me fairlycertainthatthismodeof creativityderived from hisspecial relationshipwith 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...


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