Contributing Editors for this page include Kory Loyola


#63 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“…Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, December 10, 1856

The Lincoln Log, December 10, 1856

Close Readings

Kory Loyola, “Understanding Lincoln” blog post (via Quora), September 29, 2013

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How Historians Interpret

“This eloquent address helped clinch Lincoln’s reputation as the leader of Illinois’ Republicans. A correspondent of the Illinois State Journal declared: ‘There is no man upon whom they would so gladly confer the highest honors within their gift, and I trust an opportunity may not long be wanting which will enable them to place him in a station that seems to be by universal consent conceded to him, and which he is so admirably qualified by nature to adorn.'”

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapter, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 11 (PDF), pp. 1221.

“Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election because the anti-Nebraska supporters split between Fillmore and Frémont. Republican William Henry Bissell was elected governor of Illinois. On December 10 at a postelection Republican banquet in Chicago, Lincoln delivered an inspirational speech to members of the base he had helped to create, and an examination of the speech shows he ultimately had more than a celebratory purpose and more than just Republicans in mind. The speech reflects the increasing diversity of Lincoln’s political rhetoric: it emphasizes the themes of liberty and union, the immorality of slavery, folksy humor for satiric effect, problem analysis, numeric analysis of voting, refutation, solution development based on his political-social philosophy, and exhortation. The speech includes the stylistic techniques characteristic of Lincoln’s well-crafted writing, including antithesis, metaphor, and anaphora. In this speech, Lincoln famously observes that public opinion shapes American government and that ‘whoever can change public opinion, can change the government.’  He quotes Buchanan’s accusation that Republicans are trying ‘to change the domestic institutions of existing states” and “doing every thing in our power to deprive the Constitution and the laws of moral authority.’ Lincoln, rather, says the Democrats are the ones who are trying to shift from the American principle of ‘the practical equality of all men’ to ‘the opposite idea that slavery is right.’ Lincoln denies that the majority of Americans believe slavery is right.”

—D. Leigh Henson, “Classical Rhetoric as a Lens for Reading the Key Speeches of Lincoln’s Political Rise, 1852-1856”Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 35, 2014.

“As ‘the central idea’ of the regime, the principle of equality was axiomatic to popular government. ‘Our government rests in public opinion,’ Lincoln explained. ‘Whoever can change public opinion, can chance the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or [on?] any subject, always has a ‘central idea,’ from which all its minor thought radiate. That ‘central idea’ in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, ‘the equality of men.’’ Lincoln sought to educate public opinion in accordance with this great truth. Indeed the norm of equality was the moral compass whereby he navigated the ship of state.”

—Joseph R. Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln, Philosopher Statesman, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), 15.


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…Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or [on?] any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.” And although it was always submitted patiently to whatever of inequality there seemed to be as matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady progress towards the practical equality of all men. The late Presidential election was a struggle, by one party, to discard that central idea, and to substitute for it the opposite idea that slavery is right, in the abstract, the workings of which, as a central idea, may be the perpetuity of human slavery, and its extension to all countries and colors. Less than a year ago, the Richmond Enquirer, an avowed advocate of slavery, regardless of color, in order to favor his views, invented the phrase, “State equality,” and now the President, in his Message, adopts the Enquirer‘s catch-phrase, telling us the people “have asserted the constitutional equality of each and all of the States of the Union as States.” The President flatters himself that the new central idea is completely inaugurated; and so, indeed, it is, so far as the mere fact of a Presidential election can inaugurate it. To us it is left to know that the majority of the people have not yet declared for it, and to hope that they never will.
All of us who did not vote for Mr. Buchanan, taken together, are a majority of four hundred thousand. But, in the late contest we were divided between Fremont and Fillmore. Can we not come together, for the future. Let every one who really believes, and is resolved, that free society is not, and shall not be, a failure, and who can conscientiously declare that in the past contest he has done only what he thought best—let every such one have charity to believe that every other one can say as much. Thus let bygones be bygones. Let past differences, as nothing be; and with steady eye on the real issue, let us reinaugurate the good old “central ideas” of the Republic. We can do it. The human heart is with us—God is with us. We shall again be able not to declare, that “all States as States, are equal,” nor yet that “all citizens as citizens are equal,” but to renew the broader, better declaration, including both these and much more, that “all men are created equal.”