Section II: The Politician


Lincoln’s public career coincided with the maturing of a democratic, two-party system marked by boisterous campaigning and torrents of rhetoric. Whether working for his own election or that of others, he showed an aptitude for the new politics and connected easily with the public. In the main he spoke extemporaneously, but he prepared notes for his most important speeches. His faith in people’s intelligence and moral sense led him naturally to use logic and reason as means of persuasion. He despised the florid rhetoric associated with Daniel Webster and other celebrated Whig orators of the day, preferring a dry statement of his main point in clear, simple language. His great gift for colorful colloquialism and storytelling cemented his appeal as an unaffected man of the people. Few could match him for the humorous tales that he used as parable, explanation, and analogy. When the grave issue of slavery’s expansion shook the political system during the 1850s, however, he reined in his humor and surprised many with his ethical seriousness. A colleague remarked that, when thoroughly roused, Lincoln “would come out with an earnestness of conviction, a power of argument, a wealth of illustration, that I have never seen surpassed.”


A house divided against itself cannot stand.

— Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1857– 58