Abraham Lincoln never let himself forget that he stood on the shoulders of the American Founders. In the 12 months between his emergence as a presidential contender after delivering a well-received speech at New York’s Cooper Union in February 1860 and his inauguration as the 16th president of the United States in March 1861, appeals and comparisons to the founders appear over and over again in what he wrote and said.

In the speeches he gave on tour after the Cooper Union address, he rebuked pro-slavery enthusiasts who worked themselves into a frenzy over his rival for the Republican nomination (and later his secretary of state) William Henry Seward’s 1858 “Irrepressible Conflict” speech (“irrepressible” being Seward’s warning, like Lincoln’s House Divided speech, that the antagonism between slavery and freedom could not be talked or bluffed away). “Jefferson said it,” Lincoln retorted. “Washington said it.” And there was nothing but “bushwhackery” in criticizing Seward for saying it. “We stick to the policy of our fathers,” Lincoln insisted, and that policy was what George Washington, “as President of the United States, approved” when he “signed an act of Congress, enforcing the prohibition of Slavery in the northwestern Territory.” Do not throw Washington’s strictures against sectionalism at Northerners, Lincoln warned.

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