PAUL M. ANGLEPage  [End Page 8]

In the life of Lincoln there are many contrasts. Born in a frontier log cabin, death came to him as the occupant of the most eminent of American mansions. Penniless, a wandering laborer in his youth, he was to hear himself denounced in more than one political campaign as the representative of wealth and aristocracy. Conservative in his political beliefs, circumstances forced upon him acts more radical and assumptions of power more nearly revolutionary than those committed by any other President. A lover of peace by nature, he became the head of a belligerent nation. Untrained in war, he was the commander-in-chief of gigantic armies, and for a time the actual director of their operations.

Other paradoxical phases of his career might be mentioned, but no one of them would be found more striking than that of which I intend to speak—the fact that with less than a year of formal schooling, and that of a character which today would be laughed out of our schools, he became one of the great masters[1] of the English language.

No time need be spent in establishing the fact of that mastery. One could cite, for example, the testimony of the presidents of two Page  [End Page 9] great universities, Eliot of Harvard and Lord Curzon of Oxford.[2] More conclusive as evidence, however, are facts with which everyone is familiar. How many persons know anything of the battle of Gettysburg in comparison with the number of those who carry in their minds the words, "Four score and seven years ago?" How many are familiar with the circumstances and significance of the Cooper Union Address in comparison with those who know and quote its concluding plea: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it?"

More interesting, I think, than mere eulogy of Lincoln as a literary artist, is some discussion of his development from a boy who went to country school "by littles" to a President of the United States whose words are even more memorable than his acts. Like Lincoln himself, this development remains in large part inexplicable. It can be described, yet under analysis the sources of his literary power remain as deeply hidden as the sources of his personal and political greatness. In his case, as with Shakespeare and Burns, genius followed its own hidden laws.

Certainly Lincoln's mastery of the language is not explained by the education which he enjoyed. He himself has sketched that with sufficient detail to dispose definitely of this possibility. Supplying data for a biographical notice in 1858, he dismissed it with Page  [End Page 10] one word: "defective." [3] Later, in the autobiography which he wrote for Jesse K. Fell, he was more explicit. Writing of his youth in Indiana, he said: "There were some schools, so called, but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond 'readin', writin', and cipherin'' to the rule of three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course, when I came of age I did not know much. Still, somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the rule of three, but that was all." [4]

However, where most men in his circumstances would have been content with this meagre preparation, Lincoln was not. If, accepting his own words, he was not much more than literate at the age of twenty-one, he did not permit that condition to endure. Within two years he was hard at work, under the supervision of the village schoolmaster of New Salem, at the study of grammar. A year later he was deep in trigonometry and surveying, and soon afterwards he added Blackstone, Chitty, Kent and other legal classics to the field to be covered. When he was admitted to the bar in 1837 he had traveled far from the youth of seven years before who knew little more than his a b c's. [5]

A number of years were to elapse, however, before Lincoln undertook the one formal study which clearly contributed something to his effectiveness as a writer and speaker. In 1849, when he Page  [End Page 11] was forty years of age, he returned from his one term in Congress, humbled by defeat and convinced that for him a political future was impossible. In disillusionment he resumed his law practice, traveling, six months of every year, from county seat to county seat with the judge and itinerant bar. Tucked in his saddle bags or carpet sack with Blackstone and the Revised Statutes of Illinois was a copy of Euclid's geometry. The lawyers who traveled the old Eighth Circuit have painted unforgettable pictures of Lincoln's struggles with the abstruse Greek mathematican. More than once one of them would awake at one or two o'clock in the morning to find Lincoln, feet protruding over the footboard of an insufficient bed, pondering a difficult demonstration in the light of a single flickering candle, entirely oblivious to the snoring of the other occupants of the crowded tavern room. He persisted in the study until he could demonstrate every proposition in the six books. In the severe logic of his later addresses, and even in occasional phrases such as the "dedicated to the proposition" of the Gettysburg address, one finds the result.

If the bare facts of Lincoln's education are insufficient to explain his capacity for expression, so too are his reading habits. He was certainly not what we know as "a well-read man." His law partner Herndon said of him that he read less and thought more than any man of his class in America, and doubted if he had ever read a single book from cover to cover. [6] While this was probably an exaggeration, it erred only in overstatement. Lincoln was not especially interested in books, and when he read, it was to follow certain particular inclinations, rather than to cultivate anything like cultural breadth.

He spent much of his time, for instance, in reading newspapers—not the comprehensive journals of today, but small sheets filled almost entirely with political matter highly colored by the partisan bias of each editor. He was inordinately fond of such humorists as Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, frequently reading passages from their writings to the members of his cabinet. In striking contrast was his passion for Shakespeare. Here again his propensity to dig deeply even if narrowly is illustrated. Though he was familiar enough with Hamlet and Macbeth and a few other plays to challenge the interpretations of the Page  [End Page 12] foremost Shakesperian actor of the time, he casually confessed that several of the plays he had not even read.[7]

Poetry, in fact, had a stronger attraction for Lincoln than prose. Melancholy, musical pieces like Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" and Holmes' "Last Leaf" were favorites. One mournful production—"Mortality," by an obscure Scotch poet, James Knox—he repeated so frequently that for some years he was believed to have written it. Of the works of Robert Burns and Thomas Hood he was very fond. John Hay has left an inimitable picture in his diary of Lincoln's keen enjoyment of this type of literature and the pleasure he took in sharing it with others. On the fourth of April, 1864, he wrote: "A little after midnight, as I was writing those last lines, the President came into the office laughing with a volume of Hood's Works in his hand, to show Nicolay and me the little caricature, 'An unfortunate Bee-ing,' seemingly utterly unconscious that he, with his short shirt hanging about his long legs, and setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich, was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is! Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army in the world, with his own fame and future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhommie and good fellowship, that he gets out of bed and perambulates the house in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun of poor Hood's queer little conceits." [8]

With the exception of an occasional quotation, however, reading of this sort seems to have had no influence on Lincoln's speeches or writings, although it may have given depth to the natural poetic quality so noticeable in his presidential state papers. There was one book, however, which left its mark on much of what he wrote. That was the Bible. Upon a familiarity which extended back to his youth he could always depend. He fre- Page  [End Page 13] quently took a text from it—as when he opened one of his greatest speeches with the paraphrase, "A house divided against itself cannot stand"—and his finest piece of prose, the Second Inaugural, is so heavily freighted with its phrases that it reads like a magnificent passage from the King James version.

In mentioning the effect of Euclid on Lincoln's literary style I have referred to his "later writings." Allusion to the poetic quality of his prose was made in connection with his state papers, while the illustration of Biblical influence which has been cited was from a speech delivered in 1858. It is no mere coincidence that all these examples were taken from speeches or writings of the last ten years of Lincoln's life. His effectiveness with words came gradually. To trace the development, even briefly, the story of his life must be followed.

When he was twenty-three years old Lincoln announced that he was a candidate for election to the Illinois Legislature. He was defeated, but he ran again, this time successfully, two years later. He was re-elected three times, serving four terms in all, from 1834 to 1842. Naturally, he made many speeches, both as a campaigner and as a member of the Legislature. Those which have survived in printed form enable us to form an accurate estimate of the manner in which Lincoln expressed his thoughts in words at the beginning of his political career.

That the outstanding characteristic of these early speeches should be their grandiloquence is not surprising. "Fine writing" is generally the cardinal sin of young men. Moreover, it was an age of pomposity, the florid figures of Daniel Webster setting a standard which speakers everywhere were eager to imitate. Lincoln was no exception. "Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow?" he asked in one of his first recorded speeches. [9] "Never!" he answered; "All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years." Page  [End Page 14]

In the same strain is a passage from another speech of a year or two later. "Many free countries have lost their liberty, and ours may lose hers;" he proclaimed, "but if she shall, be it my proudest plume, not that I was the last to desert, but that I never deserted her. I know that the great volcano at Washington, aroused and directed by the evil spirit that reigns there, is belching forth the lava of political corruption in a current broad and deep, which is sweeping with frightful velocity over the whole length and breadth of the land, bidding fair to leave unscathed no green spot or living thing; while on its bosom are riding, like demons on the waves of hell, the imps of that evil spirit, and fiendishly taunting all those who dare resist its destroying course with the hopelessness of their effort; and, knowing this, I cannot deny that all may be swept away. Broken by it I, too, may be; bow to it I never will." [10]

At the same time Lincoln was indulging in a broad humor that made him the idol of Illinois audiences. For an example I go not to a speech, but to an anonymous letter in which he ridiculed the Democrats—and particularly the Democratic state auditor, James Shields,—so effectively that he aroused animosities which finally led to a challenge. In the course of this letter Lincoln, in the guise of an illiterate farmer, described Shields as follows: "I seed him when I was down in Springfield last winter. They had a sort of a gatherin' there one night among the grandees, they called a fair. All the gals about town was there, and all the handsome widows and married women, finickin' about trying to look like gals, tied as tight in the middle, and puffed out at both ends, like bundles of fodder that hadn't been stacked yet, but wanted stackin' pretty bad.... They wouldn't let no Democrats in, for fear they'd disgust the ladies, or scare the little gals, or dirty the floor. I looked in at the window, and there was this same fellow Shields floatin' about on the air, without heft or earthly substances, just like a lot of cat fur where cats had been fighting. He was paying his money to this one, and that one, and t'other one, and sufferin' great loss because it wasn't silver instead of State paper; and the sweet distress he seemed to be in,—his very features, in the ecstatic agony of his soul, spoke audibly and distinctly, 'Dear girls, it is Page  [End Page 15] distressing, but I cannot marry you all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.'"[11]

To speculate upon the "ifs" of history is an idle occupation, but one wonders, nevertheless, whether Lincoln would ever have outgrown the sort of thing just quoted if national politics had not broken violently into his otherwise placid life. He had been speaking and writing for twenty years, yet in that time no real growth is discernible. But on May 30, 1854, the Nebraska Bill became a law. Slavery, believed to have been permanently restricted, could now be extended to territory formerly thought to be destined for freedom. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, being content to leave slavery unmolested in the territory already occupied in the hope that it would die a natural death, but he was determined to resist its extension with all his power. Therefore— quoting his own words—"the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before." [12] And Lincoln, stirred to the depths, was a different man from the easy-going lawyer whose jokes were a by-word in central Illinois.

To do what he could, Lincoln plunged into politics again. His friend Richard Yates, an Anti-Nebraska member of the House of Representatives, was seeking re-election, and Lincoln mounted the stump on his behalf. He spoke at Winchester, Carrollton, Jacksonville and Bloomington, but his real opportunity came when Stephen A. Douglas spoke in the State House at Springfield on the 3rd of October.

Early in their careers the two men had been rivals, but by 1854 Douglas had completely outdistanced Lincoln. He was the "Little Giant"—the leading member of the United States Senate, a resourceful debater, and the author and chief protagonist of the Nebraska Bill. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a political failure. Yet on October 4th he answered Douglas in a speech so powerful that it placed him immediately at the head of the opposition which in two years was to emerge as the Republican party.

It was Lincoln's first great speech. Twelve days later he repeated it at Peoria, and it is preserved as he delivered it there.[13] Page  [End Page 16] The humorous treatment of his earlier days was absent, supplanted by burning seriousness. Floridity had given way to short, plain words, each finding its proper place in a logical development as strict and uncompromising as the Euclidian demonstrations its author had mastered. With these characteristics were others which future generations were to recognize as distinguishing marks—the fair-mindedness which impelled him to remind his hearers that for the sin of slavery the North bore equal responsibility with the South; the humility which caused him to confess that even though all earthly power were his, he should not know what to do with slavery as an existing institution. [14]

In the next six years the characteristics which marked off Lincoln's first great speech from those which had preceded it became increasingly evident. When he discussed the slavery question, it was with a seriousness which precluded humor. He continued to develop his thoughts with close-knit logic. In his effort to bring what he had to say within the comprehension of every hard-fisted farmer and workingman in his audience, he continued to abstain from the floridity of his youth. "Don't shoot to high," he warned his partner, "aim lower and the common people will understand you.... If you aim too high your ideas will go over the heads of the masses, and only hit those who need no hitting." [15]

For six years Lincoln followed his own advice. Back and forth over the state of Illinois he went, speaking everywhere. In the campaign of 1856, when he was a Fremont elector, he spoke nearly one hundred times. Two years later, in his own campaign against Douglas for the senatorship, he spoke even more fre- Page  [End Page 17]

Ralph Fletcher Seymour's painting of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas
debate at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Ralph Fletcher Seymour's painting of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
quently. He lost the senatorship, [16] but he gained a nation-wide reputation. The following year he spoke not only in Illinois, but also in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Kansas. Early in 1860 he stood on the platform at Cooper Union in New York City, facing Page  [End Page 18] an audience in which many of the political and intellectual leaders of the East were seated, and delivered an address which his hearers recognized as a permanent enrichment of American political literature. [17] "No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience," wrote Horace Greeley in the Tribune the following day.

Lincoln had, in fact, attained to mastery of words. His command of the language had served him well. From an unknown lawyer he had become a Presidential possibility, and for this change of status his power of speech was largely responsible. In the years between his emergence from obscurity and his nomination for the Presidency he had held no office, although he had twice contested unsuccessfully for one. [18] No administrative act had brought him fame. His prominence was simply the result of his opposition to the spread of slavery, so forcefully, effectively expressed that men everywhere had stopped to listen and remember.

With his election to the Presidency Lincoln was compelled to rely as never before upon his command of words. The situation in which he took office in the spring of 1861 was as threatening a one as a President could ever face—the South in panic at the election of a Republican, seven states in secession, civil war imminent. What Lincoln would say when he stood on the east portico of the Capitol on that raw day in March was all-important. On the one hand, the slightest slip would precipitate conflict; on the other, there was the possibility that passions might be cooled and peace restored.

The inaugural address was calm, reasoned, but firm. In it he announced his intention "to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts"; but upon the people of the South—his "dissatisfied fellow-countrymen," he called them—he placed the burden of civil war. "The government will not assail you," he told them. "You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend it.'" Page  [End Page 19]

And then, for the first time, Lincoln made an attempt to touch the emotions as well as the reason of his auditors. "I am loath to close," he concluded. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over his broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." [19]

For six weeks it seemed as if these words might have the effect he desired. And then, one April morning, from the batteries masked behind the low sand hills of Charleston harbor a single shell arched in the direction of Fort Sumter. Four years of war had commenced.

Few rulers have ever borne the burden that was Lincoln's. Many men have headed states at war, but not under the circumstances in which he was placed. Not only was the responsibility of organizing for military victory upon him, but he was also given the task of welding into a unit behind the armies at the front, a population in which large numbers were out of sympathy with the war, and larger numbers out of sympathy with the manner in which it was conducted. He had to have the support of the people, and he sought it through the medium with which he was at once most familiar and most effective—his command of words.

Fort Sumter was bombarded on April 12. The following day it surrendered. On the 15th Lincoln issued his proclamation calling into, service 75,000 men. Soon afterwards, Southern ports were declared blockaded. Calls were issued for more volunteers, and for additions to the regular army and navy. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was authorized in certain contingencies. On May 24 the first advance from the northern side took place. When Congress met in special session on July 4 an actual state of war existed between the two sections of the nation.

Lincoln's most important task was to define the issue in terms that would bring home the tremendous importance of victory. His message to Congress gave him the finest possible opportunity for a Page  [End Page 20]

George P. A. Healy painted this portrait, which became Robert
Todd Lincoln's favorite likeness of his father.
George P. A. Healy painted this portrait, which became Robert Todd Lincoln's favorite likeness of his father.Page  [End Page 21]
wide hearing. After describing the outbreak of hostilities he struck the chord he wanted, one which, elaborated to perfection, he was to sound again in the Gettysburg Address two years later. "And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States," he asserted. "It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy—a government of the people by the same people—can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: 'Is there, in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness?' 'Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?'" [20]

This special message of July 4, 1861—which is not nearly so well known as it deserves to be—illustrates several of Lincoln's traits as a thinker and a literary artist. One of these was the slow, gradual development of an idea. It was characteristic that the central idea of the passage I have just quoted should be repeated in the Gettysburg Address, for Lincoln habitually revolved an idea in his mind until it stood in exactly the right relation to the body of his thought. It was thus with the Cooper Union speech, the theme of which was first stated in 1854, and recurred to again and again until it reached its final development nearly six years later. And as such an idea was repeated, the sentences by which it was expressed were shaped and shifted and polished until they became the smooth fitting parts of a perfect entity.

Another trait was the use of expressions, no matter how homely, which conveyed his exact meaning. Referring, in this special message, to those Southerners who had given the color of legality to secession, he said that "with rebellion thus sugar-coated" they had drugged the conscience of their section. The public printer objected to the phrase "sugar-coated" on the ground that it lacked the dignity proper to a state paper. Lincoln replied that he would alter it if he could be convinced that the time would ever come Page  [End Page 22] when the people would not know the meaning of sugar-coated— otherwise he would let it remain.

Many other examples could be given, but one or two will suffice. Speaking, in the Quincy debate, of popular sovereignty, he asked: "Has it not got down as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death?"[21] "Would you drop the war where it is?" he asked a critic; "or would you prosecute it in future with elderstalk squirts charged with rose-water?" [22] "Concede that the new government of Louisiana," he said in his last public address,[23] "is only what it should be, as the egg to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it."

In the first weeks of the war, and to a lesser extent throughout its course, Lincoln assumed powers for which the legal warrant was at best debatable. He had no clear authority in statute law for increasing the size of the regular army or for suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and there were many who believed that he exceeded his constitutional right when he issued the proclamation of emancipation. Despite the death struggle in which the nation was engaged, criticism of his acts was frequently sharp and vocal.

On several occasions Lincoln replied publicly to his critics. It is not unlikely that he welcomed a certain measure of public disapproval, for it gave him opportunities to appeal to the people for support—in a word, to mould public opinion. Forcefulness in high degree characterizes each of Lincoln's efforts of this kind, [24] and two of them are marked by positive genius.

On August 19, 1862 Horace Greeley addressed an open letter to Lincoln in which he accused him of pampering pro-slavery sentiment. The letter, entitled "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," was published in the New York Tribune, Greeley's paper, on the following day. Two days later Lincoln replied in phrases too simple, too succinct, to be misunderstood by anyone who could read. Page  [End Page 23]

"As to the policy I 'seem to be pursuing,' as you say," he wrote, "I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

"I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be 'the Union as it was.' If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

"I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free." [25]

No less powerful was the letter which Lincoln sent, in place of the speech he had hoped to make in person, to a Union meeting held in Springfield, his home, on September 3, 1862. Although prepared for a meeting of his supporters, he used the letter to convince critics of the justice and necessity of the proclamation of emancipation.

Nothing more stirring can be found in all of Lincoln's writings than the words with which it ends. "Peace does not appear so distant as it did," he said. "I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that among free men there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost. And Page  [End Page 24] then there will be some black men who can remember that with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation, while I fear there will be some white ones unable to forget that with malignant heart and deceitful speech they strove to hinder it."[26]

Lincoln at Gettysburg
Lincoln at GettysburgPage  [End Page 25]

When Lincoln spoke thus his words carried an almost irresistible appeal, for they reached past men's minds and touched their hearts. It was an appeal, however, which he used sparingly. When he took leave of his neighbors of Springfield upon his departure for Washington he spoke a few simple words of farewell which brought tears to the eyes of those who heard them. We have seen how, in his inaugural address a few weeks later, he appealed to the South in a way which brought to mind the sacrifices and the triumphs, the joys and the sorrows which had gone into the making of the old Union. In private letters to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth and to Mrs. Bixby he wrote from the same depth of feeling. Above all other appeals to sentiment, however, stand the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

Not until weeks after plans for dedicating the national cemetery at Gettysburg had been decided upon was Lincoln asked to speak a few words of consecration after the orator of the day had concluded. The committee in charge of arrangements had been somewhat reluctant to invite him to speak. Never before, so far as most of them knew, had he done anything of the kind that they felt would be appropriate. There, on a field where thousands had died, and where row on row of soldiers' graves faced the speakers' stand, would be no place for a political address. One can hardly blame them, for they could not have known how Lincoln would sense the tragedy of the situation, and how exquisitely he would relate it to what he conceived to be the transcendant question of the war—the question, foreshadowed in his first message to Congress, whether democratic government was capable of survival, or destined, by its very nature, to destruction.

From the perspective of today we can see that after the defeat at Gettysburg the Southern cause was doomed. To men then it was not so clear, and as a result thousands of lives were lost in almost two more years of fighting, while lines were seared in the faces— and souls—of the men who guided the armies. No photograph of Lincoln is so filled with pathos as that which was taken four days before his death. From the features there revealed—hollow cheeks, eyes heavily ringed, hair shot with gray—an infinite sadness speaks, and the toll of four years of suffering is plainly visible.

This was the Lincoln who, on the 4th of March, 1865, with the end of the slaughter in sight, rose to take the oath of office a second Page  [End Page 26] time. Victory was but a matter of days. It would have been but human to have rejoiced at the prospect of success, while to have called for vengeance on the conquered would at least have been within understanding. Instead, in infinite humility, Lincoln recurred in thought to a day eleven years before, when he had proclaimed before an Illinois audience that the guilt of human slavery lay no less heavily on the North than on the South. "If we shall suppose," he said in one of the noblest passages in the language, "that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must need come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

Measured by many standards, Abraham Lincoln was a master of words. In his writings fuse sincerity and sympathy, logical directness, a severity of style almost classic, and homely plainness. Yet these attributes in themselves fail to explain the attraction of his writings. It is because his own great qualities—his ruggedness, his tenderness, his tolerance, his humility—are mirrored in what he wrote that his words will live as long as the English tongue. Page  [End Page 27]


  1. In speaking of Lincoln's skill with language, I use the word "master" not only in the sense of a creator of literature, but also as connoting one who, like a master-craftsman, is so thoroughly familiar with the instruments of his work that he can use them for practical purposes with complete confidence in their efficacy. return to text
  2. "His Gettysburg Address is the finest piece of English ever written, matchless in dignity, justness, and fitness...." Charles W. Eliot in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, July, 1922, p. 166. Speaking on the subject, "Modern Parliamentary Eloquence," Lord Curzon said of the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural: "They were uttered by a man who had been a country farmer and a district lawyer before he became a statesman. But they are among the glories and treasures of mankind. I escape the task of deciding which is the masterpiece of modern English eloquence by awarding the prize to an American." Quoted in Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, p. 128. One of the finest contemporary appraisals of Lincoln's power with words is that which Charles Francis Adams, Jr., wrote in a letter to his father, the United States Minister to England, on March 7, 1865: "What do you think of the inaugural? That rail-splitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day. Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour which we should not expect from orators or men of the schools. This inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of this war; in it people seemed to speak in the sublimely simple utterance of ruder times. What will Europe think of this utterance of the rude ruler, of whom they have nourished so lofty a contempt? Not a prince or minister in all Europe could have risen to such an equality with the occasion...." A Cycle of Adams Letters, II, 257. return to text
  3. Nicolay and Hay, Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, II, 368. (All citations to this work are to the Francis D. Tandy edition of 1905). return to text
  4. Ibid., V. 287. return to text
  5. Lincoln's own account of these efforts at self-education is to be found in the third-person autobiography which he wrote in the summer of 1860. "After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father," he wrote of himself, "he studied English grammar—imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does.... The surveyor of Sangamon offered to depute to Abraham that portion of his work which was within his part of the county. He accepted, procured a compass and chain, studied Flint and Gibson a little, and went at it.... The election of 1834 came, and he was then elected to the legislature by the highest vote cast for any candidate. Major John T. Stuart, then in full practice of the law, was also elected. During the canvass, in a private conversation, he encouraged Abraham [to] study law. After the election he borrowed books of Stuart, took them home with him, and went at it in good earnest. He studied with nobody. He still mixed in the surveying to pay board and clothing bills. When the legislature met, the law-books were dropped, but were taken up again at the end of the session." Complete Works, VI, 27–33. return to text
  6. Herndon's Life of Lincoln, (Paul M. Angle, Ed.), 477. return to text
  7. The point is illustrated by the letter which Lincoln wrote to the Shakesperian actor, James H. Hackett, on August 17, 1863: "Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are 'Lear', 'Richard III', 'Henry VIII', 'Hamlet', and especially 'Macbeth'. I think nothing equals 'Macbeth'. It is wonderful." Complete Works, IX, 85. return to text
  8. Letters of John Hay and Extracts From Diary (Washington, 1908, Printed but not Published); I, 190–91. return to text
  9. "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," delivered before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, January 27, 1838. Complete Works, I, 35–50. In the Complete Works the speech is misdated January 27, 1837. return to text
  10. Speech on the Subtreasury, delivered at Springfield in December, 1839. Complete Works, I, 100–39. The passage quoted is to be found on pp. 137–38. return to text
  11. "Letter from the 'Lost Townships,'" August 27, 1842; Complete Works, I, 221–31. return to text
  12. Complete Works, VI, 37. return to text
  13. Ibid., II, 190–262. return to text
  14. For example: "Before proceeding let me say that I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up.... When Southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we are, I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists, and that it is very difficult to get rid of it in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution." Complete Works, II, 205–06. return to text
  15. Herndon's Life of Lincoln (Paul M. Angle, Ed.), p. 262. return to text
  16. But only because an inequitable apportionment of legislative districts gave Douglas an advantage. For state officers the Republicans polled 125,430 votes; the Douglas Democrats, 121,609; the Buchanan Democrats, 5,071. However, in the Legislature Douglas was elected by a vote of 54 to 46. Nicolay & Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, II, 165. return to text
  17. The Cooper Institute Address, delivered February 27, 1860. Complete Works, V, 293–328. return to text
  18. In 1854–55, when he sought election to the United States Senate at the hands of the Legislature, and in 1858. return to text
  19. The idea expressed in this famous passage was William H. Seward's, but the artistry which gave it its appeal was Lincoln's. Nicolay & Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, III, 343–44. return to text
  20. Complete Works, VI, 304. return to text
  21. Ibid., IV, 380. return to text
  22. Letter to Cuthbert Bullitt, July 28, 1862; Ibid., VII, 297. return to text
  23. April 11, 1865. Ibid., XI, 84–92. return to text
  24. Fine examples are the letter to Erastus Corning and others, June 12, 1863; Complete Works, VIII, 298–314; and that to M. Birchard and others, June 29, 1863; Ibid., IX, 1–10. return to text
  25. Complete Works, VIII, 15–16. As quoted above, the first paragraph of the letter is omitted. return to text
  26. Complete Works, IX, 95–102. John Hay's comment on this letter is worth recording: "His [Lincoln's] last letter is a great thing. Some hideously bad rhetoric—some indecorums that are infamous,—yet the whole letter takes its solid place in history as a great utterance of a great man. The whole Cabinet could not have tinkered up a letter which could have been compared with it." "Letter to Nicolay, Washington, Sept. 11, 1863; Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, I, 102. return to text