Tonight, an American president will deliver a speech he did not write based on research he did not conduct. It is doubtful whether Abraham Lincoln or his contemporaries would be impressed.
Indeed, Lincoln did his own research and writing. Which is to say, really, that Lincoln did his own thinking. He had no scientific polls or focus groups. He conducted politics in-person or in print.
In his first recorded political speech, an address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln reveals his concern about how to sustain America's founding principles beyond the natural lives of America's Founders. Two decades later, debating the much more famous Stephen Douglas, Lincoln argued that slavery was a moral wrong.
"You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
The speech that propelled him toward the Republican nomination for President, delivered before the Cooper Union Institute in New York City, revealed Lincoln had scoured original sources to find the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution. He himself had studied and analyzed the records of the Constitutional Convention and the early meetings of Congress. Lincoln rested his conclusions on what the Constitution meant firmly in the original meaning and understanding of the text.
No one expects President Obama to display either the seriousness or eloquence of Lincoln in tonight's address.
Thankfully, today offers another way to connect with Lincoln's legacy. A new film in limited release tells part of Lincoln's story through his relationship with his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. Saving Lincoln offers something more: produced on a very limited budget, the filmmakers developed a fascinating way to construct their sets. As the trailer shows, the movie is set against a background of actual Civil War-era photographs.
Of course, the best way to connect with Lincoln remains his own writings. Many are made to be heard, rather than read silently. Teaching American History offers a great online collection of Lincoln's writings, plus essays and audio lectures. LibriVox offers a variety of volunteer-read, free audio files of Lincoln speeches.
So, if tonight's State of the Union causes listlessness, nausea, or feelings of depression, perhaps a dose of Lincoln will be just what you need.