Abraham Lincoln was a smart guy. The problem smart guys have is that they say a lot of memorable things, but for whatever reason people latch on to their most famous lines while allowing the rest to fall by the wayside. With Lincoln, there’s The Gettysburg Address, his “House Divided” speech, The Emancipation Proclamation, and then his Inaugural addresses to pull from. While they are all important, I think his Lecture on Liberty at the Sanitary Fair in Baltimore should be added to the list of “do not forget” speeches.
Lincoln understood in 1864 what so many liberty-loving Americans do not: the definition of the word ‘liberty’ for many Americans is incompatible with the country’s founding.
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures … all professing to love liberty.” — Abraham Lincoln, April 18, 1864. Lecture on Liberty at the Sanitary Fair in Baltimore.
Are you the shepherd or the wolf? There are hundreds of wolves populating the halls of Congress, and all of them are trying to convince you they are a shepherd.
Editor’s note for regular readers: This passage will also play a role in the book I am writing.