Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania”

Speech at Independence Hall (February 22, 1861. Text is from the Library of America edition, ed. Don Fehrenbacher. For the original variant sources, see Basler.)
Abraham Lincoln

MR. CUYLER:- I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here in the place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to our distracted country. I can say in return, sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world from this hall in which we stand. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence – I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence. (Applause.) I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle – I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.

Now, in my view of the present aspect of affairs, there need be no bloodshed and war. There is no necessity for it. I am not in favor of such a course, and I may say, in advance, that there will be no blood shed unless it be forced upon the Government. The Government will not use force unless force is used against it (Prolonged applause and cries of “That’s the proper sentiment.”)

My friends, this is wholly an unexpected speech, and I did not expect to be called upon to say a word when I came here – I supposed it was merely to do something toward raising the flag. I may, therefore, have said something indiscreet. (Cries of “no, no”), but I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by and, in the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.


All of American history is the tension between equality and liberty. Democracy needs both, but we tend to swing too far to one side or the other in our rhetoric. However, equality may generally have a greater moral significance than liberty. I originally considered just blogging this for the 4th:

Shaw’s letters clearly state that he was dubious about a free black unit succeeding, but the dedication of his men deeply impressed him, and he grew to respect them as fine soldiers. On learning that black soldiers would receive less pay than white ones, he inspired his unit to conduct a boycott until this inequality was rectified. (from Wikipedia)

The work of equality is just that: work. To make a Declaration was a deed that inspired sentiments. The most important of those sentiments animated Lincoln to save the Union. I don’t know that liberty has a necessary, corresponding effort.

Moral significance does not simply stem from doing stuff. The issue of justice comes mainly out of inequality. Intuitively, this makes sense. Most of us consider being able to do what we want without regard to others a privilege. If we see someone else doing what they want and we’re not allowed to do something, it isn’t really liberty at stake, it’s equality. This is not to diminish the significance of liberty: obviously there are times it matters far more than equality. And I need not say anything about the massive sacrifices being made right now on behalf of all of us. But I suspect our diet for the 4th will be a lot of “freedom isn’t free” rhetoric, which can sometimes diminish our everyday efforts in building each other up.

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