Abraham Lincoln's Greatest Speeches

Abraham Lincoln's ability to write and deliver great speeches made him a rising star in national politics and propelled him to the White House.

And during his years in office, classic speeches, especially the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, helped to establish him as one of the greatest American presidents.

Follow the links below to read more about Lincoln's greatest speeches.

Lincoln's Lyceum Address

Abraham Lincoln in early daguerreotype
Abraham Lincoln as a young politician in the 1840s. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Addressing a local chapter of the American Lyceum Movement in Springfield, Illinois, a 28-year-old Lincoln delivered a surprisingly ambitious speech on a cold winter night in 1838.

The speech was entitled "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," and Lincoln, who had just been elected to local political office, spoke on matters of great national significance. He made allusions to a recent act of mob violence in Illinois, and also addressed the issue of enslavement.

Though Lincoln was talking to a smalltown audience of friends and neighbors, he seemed to have ambitions beyond Springfield and his position as a state representative.

The "House Divided" Speech

When Lincoln was nominated to be the candidate of the Illinois Republican Party for U.S. Senate he delivered a speech at the state convention on June 16, 1858. Reflecting the beliefs of his party at the time, the opposition to the spread of enslavement, he intended to speak of how the nation had pro-slavery states and free states. He wanted to use a phrase that his listeners would find familiar, so he utilized a quote from the Bible: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

His speech is remembered as an eloquent statement of principles, yet it was criticized at the time. Some friends of Lincoln's thought the Biblical quote was inappropriate. His law partner had even advised him not to use it. But Lincoln trusted his instincts. He lost the election for Senate that year to the powerful incumbent, Stephen Douglas. But his speech that night in 1858 became memorable and may have helped him in his run for the presidency two years later.

Lincoln's Address at Cooper Union

Engraving of Lincoln's Cooper Union portrait
Engraving of Lincoln based on photograph taken the day of his Cooper Union address. Getty Images

In late February 1860, Abraham Lincoln took a series of trains from Springfield, Illinois to New York City. He had been invited to speak to a gathering of the Republican Party, a fairly new political party that was opposed to the spread of enslavement.

Lincoln had gained some fame while debating Stephen A. Douglas two years earlier in a Senate race in Illinois. But he was essentially unknown in the East. The speech he delivered at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, would make him an overnight star, elevating him to the level of running for president.

Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

Abraham Lincoln
Alexander Gardner/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address was delivered under circumstances never seen before or since, as the country was literally coming apart. Following Lincoln's election in November 1860, pro-slavery states, outraged by his victory, began threatening to secede.

South Carolina left the Union in late December, and other states followed. By the time Lincoln delivered his inaugural address, he was facing the prospect of governing a fractured nation. Lincoln gave an intelligent speech, which was praised in the North and reviled in the South. And within a month the nation was at war.

The Gettysburg Address

Artist's depiction of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
An artist's depiction of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Library of Congress/Public Domain

In late 1863 President Lincoln was invited to give a brief address at the dedication of a military cemetery on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, which had been fought the previous July.

Lincoln chose the occasion to make a major statement on the war, emphasizing that it was a just cause. His remarks were always intended to be fairly brief, and in crafting the speech Lincoln created a masterpiece of concise writing.

The entire text of the Gettysburg Address is less than 300 words, but it carried enormous impact, and remains one of the most quoted speeches in human history.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

Photograph of Lincoln's second inaugural address by Alexander Gardner
Lincoln was photographed by Alexander Gardner while delivering his second inaugural address. Library of Congress/Public Domain

Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in March 1865, as the Civil War was reaching its end. With victory within sight, Lincoln was magnanimous, and issued a call for national reconciliation.

Lincoln's second inaugural stands as probably the best inaugural address ever, as well as being one of the best speeches ever delivered in the United States. The final paragraph, a single sentence beginning, "With malice toward none, with charity toward all..." is one of the most passages ever said by Abraham Lincoln.

He did not live to see the America he envisioned after the Civil War. Six weeks after delivering his brilliant speech, he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre.

Other Writings by Abraham Lincoln

Emancipation Proclamation
Library of Congress/Wikipedia Commons/Public Domain

Beyond his major speeches, Abraham Lincoln exhibited great facility with the language in other forums.

  • The Lincoln-Douglas Debates were held in Illinois throughout the summer of 1858 as Lincoln ran for a U.S. Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas. In the series of seven debates each man would speak for up to an hour, so the format would be more like a speech than any debate we would see in modern times.
    Lincoln got off to a shaky start in the first debate, but eventually found his footing, and became, in the crucible of debating the skillful Douglas, an accomplished public speaker.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation was written by Abraham Lincoln and signed into law on January 1, 1863. Lincoln had been waiting for a Union victory he felt would give him political clout to issue a proclamation freeing enslaved people, and turning back a Confederate invasion of the North at Antietam in September 1862 provided the desired circumstances.
    The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free many enslaved people, as it only applied to enslaved people in states in rebellion to the United States, and it couldn't be enforced until territory was secured by the Union Army.
  • Lincoln's proclamation of a National Day of Thanksgiving would not be considered a major piece of writing, yet it nicely illustrates Lincoln's style of expression.
    Lincoln was essentially lobbied to issue the proclamation by the editor of a popular magazine for women. And in the document, Lincoln reflects on the hardships of the war and encourages the nation to take a day off for reflection.
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McNamara, Robert. "Abraham Lincoln's Greatest Speeches." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/abraham-lincolns-greatest-speeches-1773588. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Abraham Lincoln's Greatest Speeches. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincolns-greatest-speeches-1773588 McNamara, Robert. "Abraham Lincoln's Greatest Speeches." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincolns-greatest-speeches-1773588 (accessed June 5, 2023).