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I read this in Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address,

The fugitive-slave clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each.

Is break over here related to the waves breaking over?

Oxford Advance Learner's Dictionary: 20. when waves break, they fall and are dissolved into foam, usually near land: The sea was breaking over the wrecked ship.

Do you think that break over here is just another figurative way to refer that a few people fail to fulfill their legal obligation?

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3 Answers 3

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The verbal phrase to break over is defined in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary of 1913 as ‘to overflow; to go beyond limits’. Presumably, as you suggest, this is an extension of the notion of waves breaking over rocks and other obstacles. In current usage only the literal sense is at all common, but the dictionary entry and Lincoln’s speech suggest that the extended sense ‘to go beyond limits’ was less uncommon 100-150 years ago.

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Yes, I believe your interpretation is fairly accurate.

Lincoln understood that regardless of what laws are passed, there will always be those who simply choose to ignore them and continue to do what they want to do.

Had the speech been given today, he may have substituted "there will always be a few rotten eggs" or a similar idiom instead of "break over".

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"Break over" is a term used often in Kentucky (and elsewhere, I suppose), so perhaps Lincoln (having been born here) learned it in youth, before moving to Illinois. It means, generally, "to give in," as in "He finally broke over, confessing to all the charges against him." "I stayed on the diet for three weeks but broke over during the fourth and ate half a gallon of ice cream."

From this meaning, one could extrapolate the meaning, "falter" or "fail." Indeed, "broke over" sometimes means "failed" - as in the "diet" example above.

I believe that Lincoln's sentence would have read more clearly had he said, Most people will abide by both laws "...[but] a few [are inevitably going to] break over in [deciding to follow] each."

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