The two worlds of Abraham Lincoln

TODAY I want to talk with you about our greatest politician, Abraham Lincoln. In particular, I want to talk with you about his education. Lincoln is intriguing because he was a complicated person. Whether we look at his career in politics, or at his attitude toward formal schooling, or at his attitude toward education throughout his life, it seems clear that he lived in two worlds. As we all know, he was a high-minded, eloquent statesman -- the finest orator in our political history. His speech at Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural are justly famous. But there are also lesser known speeches. Listen to a passage from the one at Edwardsville in 1858. When . . . you have succeeded in dehumanizing the Negro; when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out as in the darkness of the damned; are you quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you?

Our reliance is in the love of liberty that God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. . . . Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.

The other Lincoln was a practical, story-telling politician. Lincoln came from the humblest of backgrounds, and he learned to live by his wits. When he was in a tight spot, he used every clever device to escape.

When we turn to Lincoln's attitude toward formal education, we find a somewhat similar division. Lincoln was not only self-made, but self-taught. In an autobiography, he wrote that he went to school ``by littles.'' Taken altogether, these ``littles'' added up to no more than 12 months of classroom teaching during his whole life.

At times, Lincoln thought that this education by self-help, outside schools and colleges, would also work for others. The important point, he felt, was for the ``great mass of men'' to ``emancipate themselves'' from the idea that the ``educated few'' were ``superior beings'' or that common people ``were naturally incapable of rising to equality.

But the other Lincoln also understood the value of formal education. In 1855, he prepared a brief in the McCormick Reaper case, yet when the case was argued in Cincinnati, the Eastern lawyers brushed Lincoln aside. Rather than sulk, Lincoln listened attentively to their arguments. I am going home to study law [he told a friend]. . . . These college-trained men who have devoted their whole lives to study are coming west. . . . They study on a single case perhaps for months, as we never do.

A few years later he sent his oldest son east first to a prep school, then to college, and finally to law school. When Lincoln became President, he signed the Morill Act, which launched the system of land grant colleges that have become our great state universities.

This division between self-education and formal schooling parallels another one, namely Lincoln's attitude toward the place of education in life. Certainly he was an intellectual as well as a gifted orator. For him, education was a process that continued indefinitely. When he was a young man, he ransacked his friends' libraries. As a youth, he mastered a difficult English grammar, and then learned surveying. As an older man, after he left Congress, he learned the six books of Euclid. All his life he read both Shakespeare and the Bible. Lincoln, in short, was devoted to life of the mind. Education was a way to live, a path he followed from his boyhood to the end of the Civil War. As he rather quaintly put it,

Every individual was made with one head and one pair of hands . . . and it was probably intended that [the] . . . head should direct and control that particular pair of hands . . . that being so, every head should be cultivated, and improved, by whatever will add to its capacity for performing its charge. In one word [we need] . . . universal education.

But once again, we encounter the two Lincolns. In fact, he was too much of an American -- by which I mean he was both too practical, and too moral -- to permit a sharp split between theory and practice, between the world of work and the world of education.

Let me give you two examples.

During the Senate campaign of 1858 he argued with Stephen A. Douglas about the Founding Fathers: Did they intend, or not, to keep slavery out of the federal territories? After the election, Lincoln examined the question extensively. The research he reported in the famous Cooper Institute speech of 1860 was a piece of genuine scholarship that anyone of us would admire. This same speech was so impressive that it transformed Lincoln from a provincial politician to a national figure. With his reputation assured, it was possible for him to win the Republican nomination in 1860.

Later, as the terrible Civil War continued, Lincoln saw that the Union armies were being out-thought and out-generaled. This time, he educated himself in military strategy, mastered its fundamentals, and devised a plan that would win the war. So equipped, he began the search for the right general, which ended with Ulysses S. Grant.

Here, then, is the first central point I wish to make today: Lincoln refused to make any sharp distinction between theory and practice, between book learning and useful knowledge, between professional success and the life of the mind. Lincoln's education never stopped. And that is a mark of his genius.

But there is a second point: Lincoln moved between different worlds -- between funny stories and great oratory, between schools and self-education, between books and practical politics. Yet his life was so remarkably rich and challenging precisely because he sought out these different experiences and responsibilities. And Lincoln also believed deeply in the common people. He believed that all human beings should strive to improve and educate themselves, and then apply that education throughout their lives. Lincoln's greatest achievement was to become a truly whole and integrated person by reconciling these different parts of his life. He did so by following the path to which this university, and all true education, is devoted. For him that path was to know oneself and then to act, in his words, ``according to our duty as we understand it.''

This is what Lincoln said in 1864: I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I have come to lay down the reins of power, if I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be deep down inside me.

Lincoln kept that faith. He made self-education his personal goal and then devoted his enriched talents to the larger causes in which he believed. May that be said of each of us here today. May it be said particularly of our graduates -- of whom this university is so justly proud.

From the University of Chicago graduation convocation address given by J. David Greenstone, chairman of the university's department of political science.

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