The Rail Splitter speech in New Haven, by Abraham Lincoln

“I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers CAN strike when they want to [Cheers,] where they are not obliged to work under all circumstances, and are not tied down and obliged to labor whether you pay them or not! [Cheers.] I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere. [Tremendous applause.] One of the reasons why I am opposed to Slavery is just here. What is the true condition of the laborer? I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. [Applause.] When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! [Applause.] I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition —when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”
-Excerpt courtesy of the University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 4,” Speech at New Haven, Conn., by Abraham Lincoln, March 6, 1860

“Lincoln’s ability to persuade the American people that slavery is wrong was forcefully demonstrated on March 6, 1860, in an impassioned speech before a large New Haven audience that included Yale students and alumni. The two-hour oration at Union Hall, wrote historian Waldo Braden in Abraham Lincoln, Public Speaker (1988), ‘launched his Rail Splitter image,’ which would figure heavily in his campaign for the Republican nomination and the presidency that year. Lincoln also, for the first time, condemned the Democrats for stoking fears about the ‘struggle between the white man and negro.’ These themes and their delivery played well with the crowd, according to the local paper, the Palladium. ‘There was witnessed the wildest scene of enthusiasm and excitement that has been seen in New Haven for years.'”
-Excerpt courtesy of the Yale Alumni Magazine, “Abraham Lincoln spoke here,” by Judith Schiff, January / February, 2009

-Image courtesy of the Lincoln Collection, Jean Zurow Lincoln Postcard Collection, “Abraham Lincoln, the Rail Splitter, Lincoln Centennial Souvenir,” by E. Nash, 1908

“This photograph played a significant role in shaping the public image of Republican hopeful Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign. Taken at Brady’s New York gallery on February 27—the day Lincoln delivered his famed Cooper Union address—the carefully crafted portrait revealed a candidate whose dignified bearing stood in sharp contrast to the unflattering characterizations circulated by his detractors.”
-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery, photograph by Mathew B. Brady, February 27, 1860. In her 2009 Yale Alumni Magazine article, “Abraham Lincoln spoke here,” Judith Schiff captions the image: “Abraham Lincoln posed for this portrait on February 27, 1860, a week before he gave the speech in New Haven that introduced his image as a rail splitter: ‘I am not ashamed to confess,’ he said, ‘that 25 years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son.'”

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