To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we are featuring two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” which was originally published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as Lincoln's “Lyceum Address”) which Abraham Lincoln delivered on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois. You can read the first post in the series here.
In researching great American speeches, it is no surprise that – of former U.S. presidents – Abraham Lincoln has perhaps the longest list of notable speeches under his name. His situation in history partially explains this fact. Lincoln championed the abolition of slavery and we remember him for his fierce efforts to save the union. Accordingly, he enjoyed countless opportunities to make inspiring and memorable speeches.
Yet Lincoln is one of the greatest orators this country has ever known not simply because of the circumstances he faced. Instead, we remember him as a great orator because of the moral conviction he carried throughout his life and for his gift of giving words to that conviction. Lincoln’s perseverance also serves as an example to anyone who faces challenge. He refused to abandon what he knew to be right, even when half of the country opposed him, and even when the fate of a nation hung in the balance.
Lincoln’s speech The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (i.e. the Lyceum Address) is certainly not one of his most well-known or frequently studied speeches. However we are highlighting it because it is one of his earliest speeches and because it is an important one. Lincoln delivered this speech just before his 29th birthday to a lyceum, or school for boys, in Springfield, Illinois. He had recently passed the Illinois bar and was in private practice as a lawyer. (And, as an interesting side note here: Lincoln was an entirely self-educated legal scholar. He is also one of approximately 25% of U.S. presidents who have no formal educational degree. Lincoln learned, he has said, through reading.)
The Lyceum Address illustrates Lincoln’s lifelong dedication to the preservation of the union and his early opposition to slavery. This speech also addresses a number of the same issues as Washington’s Farewell Address. Both Washington and Lincoln worried over the irreparable effects of division within the nation. And, in the Civil War, the dangers of the geographical factions that Washington warned the people against became manifest. Washington and Lincoln also shared the belief that, although diverse in their ways and beliefs, the America people needed a unified democracy in order to function properly and to prosper.
As we did for the Farewell Address, we’ve included a list of prompts to use as writing or discussion prompts. If you think of other important questions that we didn't list here, please feel free to leave them in a comment below. Ours are as follows:
To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we will feature two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” first published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as the “Lyceum Address”) delivered by Abraham Lincoln on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois.
A little over 222 years ago, George Washington made the decision not to seek a 3rd term in office and his famous Farewell Address was published in a Philadelphia newspaper. It was a letter of valediction to the American people at that time, and one that remains a rich and forceful document, filled with counsel that is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century; in his own words, President Washington offers “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.” As a founding father and the unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, George Washington was well acquainted with the perils facing the American nation, and many scholars have noted how eerily accurate his predictions have turned out to be.
Perhaps some of you have read his Address in your History classes, and maybe even with your own children or students. If your children have not yet read this Address, however, I encourage you to share it with them once they are of a suitable age (depending on the individual, 13+). George Washington’s circumspection here is an example of statesmanship at its finest. His civic duty was one he regarded with the utmost seriousness, and throughout each and every line of this letter, Washington’s love for his country rings out.
Reading the writings and speeches of early American statesmen is without doubt one of the most effective ways to acquaint any young person with traditional American values and both the content and the import of our constitution, not to mention an excellent way to expose them to exemplary rhetoric. Any serious study of our founding documents is also likely to inspire in the reader a deepened love of country, an appreciation for the care and introspection with which the constitution was crafted, and an aspiration to be a better, more thoughtful citizen. In Federalist 51, Madison asks, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature”? Through studying our government, we learn about ourselves; we are forced to admit our flaws – individual and collective – and work to correct them. Being an engaged citizen is a continual challenge, but it is also an endlessly rewarding and noble one.
In recommending this speech, I am reminded of an admonition a former professor of mine once gave to a hall of college freshman. He said (and I am paraphrasing), “The Great Books – the U.S. Constitution, the Bible, Plato’s dialogues, etc. – do not bend to human desires. They were not designed to please us, and we do not get to decide whether or not they are good enough for us and for our opinions. Instead, we must work to be good enough for them; we must rise to meet the standard they set.” In this Address, President Washington offers insight into how we may continue the work of rising to meet the standard of our constitution, how we may better strive as a people to be good enough for it.
Lastly, if you have the desire and opportunity to discuss the Farewell Address either in a classroom or at home, the following are some questions that you might use to guide your conversation. (You could have students write about one or more of these questions, as well.)