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The Substantial Difference Between Us

Lewis E. Lehrman

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he sought to put together a cabinet which might unite his party and perhaps unite the country. He quickly decided on most of his cabinet, but deliberated on a southerner who might be a token representative of that region. According to Lincoln's law partner, one man he considered was an old friend from his solitary term in Congress, Georgian Alexander H. Stephens.

The tall, robust Lincoln presented a sharp contrast to the ailing, diminutive Stephens, but they shared a talent for public speaking. Both opposed the Mexican-American War, but they differed on the expansion of slavery - which Lincoln opposed and Stephen supported. Bachelor Stephens owned a plantation and slaves. Lincoln owned a modest home and hired some help for his wife.

Stephens recalled that "Mr. Lincoln... always attracted the riveted attention of the House when he spoke; his manner of speech as well as thought was original." Two months after his arrival in Washington, Lincoln wrote his law partner that "Mr. Stephens, of Georgia, a little, slim, pale-faced, consumptive man...has just concluded the very best speech of an hour's length I ever heard. My old, withered, dry eyes are full of tears yet."

Nearly thirteen years later, President-elect Lincoln heard of another speech that Stephens had given. Stephens had been asked to address the Georgia legislature on the future of the country under a "black Republican" president. Stephens was a southern anomaly - a strong supporter of slavery who was also a strong supporter of Lincoln's Illinois rival for the presidency, Senator Stephen A. Douglas. "The first question that presents itself is, shall the people of Georgia secede from the Union in consequence of the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States?" said Stephens in beginning his speech. "My countrymen, I tell you frankly, candidly, and earnestly, that I do not think that they ought."

After reading newspaper reports of Stephens' remarks, Lincoln began a correspondence with the Georgia unionist: "Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears....You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us."

The letter presaged the closing paragraph of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Through passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Stephens urged Lincoln to speak out to preserve the Union: "A word 'fitly spoken' by you now would indeed be like 'apples of gold in pictures of silver.' I entreat you be not deceived as to the nature and extent of the danger, nor as to the remedy. Conciliation and harmony, in my judgment, can never be established by force."

This argument clearly had an impact because Lincoln wrote some notes in early January 1861 about the Founding principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution: "The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, 'fitly spoken' which has proved an 'apple of gold' to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple, but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple - not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken."

Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union and the Constitution. Slavery, the "substantial difference between us," would lead to secession and Civil War. A few weeks after Lincoln's inauguration, Stephens proclaimed that slavery was the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy. By then, Stephens had moved from an opponent of secession to the vice presidency of the secessionist government.

The former colleagues would meet again once again - near the end of the Civil War, whose prosecution by Confederate President Jefferson Davis had often been criticized by Stephens. Davis, anxious to show that he was willing to negotiate a peace, named Stephens as one of three Confederate peace commissioners. Lincoln met them at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on February 3, 1865. The meeting did not reconcile the nation, but it did reconcile the old friends. Before he was assassinated, Lincoln arranged for the release of Stephens' nephew from a Union prison.

Speaking on Lincoln's birthday thirteen years later, a wheelchair-bound Stephens observed of Lincoln: "In bodily form he was above the average, and so in intellect; the two were in symmetry. Not highly cultivated, he had a native genius far above the average of his fellows. Every fountain of his heart was ever overflowing with the 'milk of human kindness.'"

Lewis E. Lehrman is the author of Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point.

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