Lincoln Quote Genuine?

by Fred Ray on January 12, 2011 · 1 comment

Any Lincoln experts out there? I am looking to verify a quote attributed to him that’s been floating around the internet lately.

The government, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.

If so it shows that Lincoln recognized the right of revolution and somewhat undercuts his opposition to secession. Supposedly it was made at a Republican convention in Illinois in 1856. I would greatly appreciate anyone who can definitively confirm or deny this quote, and if it’s real give a citation for it.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Brendan for confirming that the quote is genuine! It’s from Lincoln’s First Inaugural, to which he kindly provides a link. I urge everyone interested to read it for the full context, which is certainly different from what some of the web sites would have you think. Revolution and secession is the last thing Lincoln wants.

Lincoln is employing a rhetorical technique that he often used in his legal arguments—to admit the general validity of a proposition, but to then say that it does not apply to this case. Here he’s saying in effect that if a group is genuinely being oppressed by the majority, then changing the government—violently if necessary—or seceding is justified. Given the revolutionary beginnings of the US, he could hardly deny this. But, he says, given that the Founders intended the union to be perpetual, it would take an extraordinary case, and this ain’t it.

The South has little complaint here, Lincoln says. The Federal government is fully enforcing its laws protecting the rights of Dixie to its Peculiar Institution, even the reviled Fugitive Slave act in the North. There is even a pending constitutional amendment forbidding the federal government from interfering with slavery where it exists. The only real dispute is the rights of states in the territories i.e. should slavery be contained or expanded, and that should be settled by the democratic process.

Conclusion? Nothing here justifies the extraordinary remedy of secession.

Nice speech, good reasoning, and I’m sure many in the South wished four years later that they’d listened. But it had no effect in the Lower South. Events were too far along.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brendan January 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Ooooh. This was a really fun quote to look into. My first impulse was to call b.s. The wording just seems too ambiguous. I was very wrong.

It’s in Lincoln’s First Inaugural: http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html

He may have said it previously, though the 1856 source may also be from a speech the fictional Lincoln makes during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1940s film “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechabelincolnillinois.html
Seems more likely the movie borrowed the quote from the 1861 speech.

What’s fascinating to me is that this quote was actually made during a speech explaining why the South should not secede. Stripped entirely out of context, it seems terribly hypocritical. But in the context of the speech, Lincoln is saying that he is by no means anti-secession or anti-revolutionary per se, but that he simply believes the South has no grounds to revolt, as their constitutional rights had not been violated.

Given that overall message, the phrase “weary of the existing government” still seems far too ambiguously worded, especially for a lawyer. I would imagine one could be “weary” without their rights being violated. Heck, I’m weary. But then again, I’m no Abe Lincoln.

Thanks for posting!

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