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…of a Statesman

January 23, 2019

In the 21st century we may refer to someone we admire as a shining example or a paragon, but never a beau ideal.  In popular parlance “beau” has become associated with the antebellum courting of belles, making the phrase “beau ideal” sound more like a romantic sentiment than an expression of the esteem one might have for a great historical figure.  But almost three years prior to the Civil War Abraham Lincoln used the phrase “beau ideal” to describe the late Senator Henry Clay.

On August 21, 1858, during the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, Lincoln said: “Henry Clay, my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life, — Henry Clay once said of a class of men who would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation, that they must, if they would do this, go back to the era of our Independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return; they must blow out the moral lights around us; they must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate there the love of liberty; and then, and not till then, could they perpetuate slavery in this country!”

The implication is that the founders knew slavery could not last indefinitely, and Henry Clay, Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman,” agreed with them.  Therefore, Lincoln, who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, was in line with the founders.  In the 21st century it has become popular to regard the founders as irrelevant and to see Lincoln as someone who established the American republic on new ground, but Lincoln often invoked the founders when he argued against slavery.

The first time Lincoln cast a ballot in a Presidential election he voted for Henry Clay.  Twenty-six years later he was able to make his point by quoting Clay in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate.

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