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Lincoln and Emancipation


MONG the paintings hitherto assigned

to places within the Capitol are two

which mark events forever memorable in the history of mankind,—thrice memorable in the history of America. The first is the painting by Vanderlyn, which represents, though with inadequate force, the great discovery which gave to the civilized world a new hemisphere. The second, by Trumbull, represents that great Declaration which banished forever from our shores the crown and sceptre of imperial power, and proposed to found a new nation upon the broad and enduring basis of liberty.

To-day we place upon our walls this votive tablet, which commemorates the third great act in the history of America,—the fulfilment of the promises of the Declaration.

Concerning the causes which led to that act, 1 Speech delivered before the joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States presenting to Congress, on behalf of Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, Mr. F. B. Carpenter's painting, “The Signing of the Proclamation of Emancipation," on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, February 12, 1878.

the motives which inspired it, the necessities which compelled it, and the consequences which followed and are yet to follow it, there have been, there are, and still will be great and honest differences of opinion. Perhaps we are yet too near the great events of which this act formed so conspicuous a part, to understand its deep significance and to foresee its far-off consequences. The lesson of history is rarely learned by the actors themselves, especially when they read it by the fierce and dusky light of war, or amid the deeper shadows of those sorrows which war brings to both. But the unanimous voice of this House in favor of accepting the gift, and the impressive scene we here witness, bear eloquent testimony to the transcendent importance of the event portrayed on yonder canvas.

Let us pause to consider the actors in that scene. In force of character, in thoroughness and breadth of culture, in experience of public affairs, and in national reputation, the Cabinet that sat around that council-board has had no superior, perhaps no equal in our history. Seward, the finished scholar, the consummate orator, the great leader of the Senate, had come to crown his career with those achievements which placed him in the first rank of modern diplomatists. Chase, with a culture and a fame of massive grandeur, stood as the rock and pillar of the public credit, the noble embodiment of the public faith. Stanton was there, a very Titan of strength, the great organizer of victory. Eminent lawyers, men of business, leaders of States and leaders of men, completed

the group.

But the man who presided over that council, who inspired and guided its deliberations, was a character so unique that he stood alone, without a model in history or a parallel among men. Born on this day sixty-nine years ago to an inheritance of extremest poverty; surrounded by the rude forces of the wilderness; wholly unaided by parents; only one year in any school; never, for a day, master of his own time until he reached his majority; making his way to the profession of the law by the hardest and roughest road;—yet by force of unconquerable will and persistent, patient work, he attained a foremost place in his profession,

And, moving up from high to higher,

Became on fortune's crowning slope

The pillar of a people's hope,
The centre of a world's desire.


At first it was the prevailing belief that he would be only the nominal head of his administration, —that its policy would be directed by the eminent statesmen he had called to his council. How erroneous this opinion was may be seen from a single incident.

Among the earliest, most difficult, and most delicate duties of his administration was the adjustment of our relations with Great Britain. Serious complications, even hostilities, were apprehended. On the 21st of May, 1861, the Secretary of State presented to the President his draught of a letter of instructions to Minister Adams, in which the position of the United States and the attitude of Great Britain were set forth with the clearness and force which long experience and great ability had placed at the command of the Secretary. Upon almost every page of that original draught are erasures, additions, and marginal notes in the handwriting of Abraham Lincoln, which exhibit a sagacity, a breadth of wisdom, and a comprehension of the whole subject, impossible to be found except in a man of the very first order. And these modifications of a great state paper were made by a man who but three months before had entered for the first time the wide theatre of executive action.

Gifted with an insight and a foresight which the ancients would have called divination, he saw, in the midst of darkness and obscurity, the logic of events, and forecast the result. From the first, in his own quaint, original way, without ostentation or offense to his associates, he was pilot and commander of his administration. He was one of the few great rulers whose wisdom increased with his power, and whose spirit grew gentler and tenderer as his triumphs were multiplied. This was the man, and these his associates, who look down upon us from the canvas.

The present is not a fitting occasion to examine, with any completeness, the causes that led to the Proclamation of Emancipation; but the peculiar relation of that act to the character of Abraham Lincoln cannot be understood, without considering one remarkable fact in his history. His earlier years were passed in a region remote from the centres of political thought, and without access to the great world of books. But the few books that came within his reach he devoured with the divine hunger of genius. One paper, above all others, led him captive, and filled his spirit with the majesty of its truth and the sublimity of its eloquence. It was the Declaration of American Independence. The author and the signers of that instrument became, in his early youth, the heroes of his political worship. I doubt if history affords any example of a life so early, so deeply, and so permanently influenced by a single political truth, as was Abraham Lincoln's by the central

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