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Lincoln as a Writer

OF STYLE, in the ordinary use of the word, Lincoln may be said to have had little. He certainly did not strive for an artistic method of expression through such imitation of the masters, for instance, as Robert Louis Stevenson's. There was nothing ambitiously elaborate or self-consciously simple in Lincoln's way of writing. He had not the scholar's range of words. He was not always grammatically accurate. He would doubtless have been very much surprised if any one had told him that he had a "style" at all. And yet, because he was determined to be understood, because he was honest, because he had a warm and true heart, because he had read good books eagerly and not coldly, and because there was in him a native good taste, as well as a strain of imagination, he achieved a singularly clear and forcible style, which took color from his own noble character, and became a thing individual and distinguished.

He was, indeed, extremely modest about his accomplishments. His great desire was to convince


those whom he addressed, and if he could do this,--if he could make his views clear to them, still more if he could make them appear reasonable,--he was satisfied. In one of his speeches in the great debate with Douglas he said: "Gentlemen, Judge Douglas informed you that this speech of mine was probably carefully prepared. I admit that it was. I am not a master of language; I have not a fine education; I am not capable of entering into a disquisition upon dialectics, as I believe you call it; but I do not believe the language I employed bears any such construction as Judge Douglas puts upon it. But I don't care about a quibble in regard to words. I know what I meant, and I will not leave this crowd in doubt, if I can explain it to them, what I really meant in the use of that paragraph."

Who are, to Americans at least, the two most interesting men of action of the nineteenth century? Why not Napoleon and Lincoln? No two men could have been more radically different in many ways; but they were both great rulers, one according to the "good old plan" of might, the other by the good new plan of right: autocrat--democrat. They were alike in this-- that both were intensely interesting personalities ; both were moved by imagination; and both acquired remarkable power of expression. One


used this power to carry out his own sometimes wise, sometimes selfish, purposes; to deceive and to dominate; the other for the expression of truth and the persuasion of his fellowmen.

Napoleon's literary art was the making of phrases which pierced like a Corsican knife or tingled the blood like the call of a trumpet. His words went to their mark quick as a stroke of lightning. When he speaks it is as if an earthquake had passed under one's feet.

Lincoln's style is very different; heroic, appealing, gracious or humorous, it does not so much startle as melt the heart. These men were alike in this--that they learned to express themselves by dint of long practice, and both in youth wrote much nonsense. Napoleon in his young days wrote romance and history; Lincoln wrote verse and composed speeches. Napoleon failed as a literary man; Lincoln certainly did not make any great success as a lyceum lecturer; in fact, his style was at its best only when his whole heart was enlisted.

Lincoln's style, at its best, is characterized by great simplicity and directness, which in themselves are artistic qualities. In addition there is an agreeable cadence, not over-done except in one curious instance,--a passage of the Second Inaugural,--where it deflects into actual rhythm and rhyme:


Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray-- That this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

This does not spoil, but it somewhat injures, one of the most memorable of his writings.

Then there is in Lincoln a quaintness, a homeliness and humor of illustration, along with a most engaging frankness and intellectual honesty. The reader has both an intellectual and moral satisfaction in the clearness and fairness of the statement. All this affects agreeably the literary form, and helps to give Lincoln's style at times the charm of imaginative utterance; for imagination in literature is, essentially, the faculty of seeing clearly and the art of stating clearly the actual reality. There was nothing of invention in Lincoln's imagination; his was the imagination that is implied in a strong realization of the truth of things in the mind of the writer or speaker.

When these letters and speeches of Lincoln were appearing in the papers as part of the news of the day, I wonder how many of us who were then living appreciated them from the literary point of view. I remember that at a certain period, some time after the war, I seemed for the first time to awake fully to the attraction of Lincoln's style. Beginning with the inimitable


speech at Gettysburg, I reread many of his writings, and felt everywhere his genius for expression.

Where and how did Lincoln gain this mastery of expression? He said of himself:

The aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student. . . . What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar--imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education and does what he can to supply the want.

As a boy at home we are told that he would write, and do sums in arithmetic, on the wooden shovel by the fireside, shaving off the used surface and beginning again. At nineteen it is recorded that he "had read every book he could find, and could spell down the whole country." He read early the Bible, Aesop's "Fables," "Robinson Crusoe," "Pilgrim's Progress," a history of the United States, Weems's "Life of Washington," Franklin's "Autobiography"; later, the life of Clay and the works of Burns and Shakspere. Not a bad list of books if taken


seriously and not mixed with trash; for, of course, culture has to do not so much with the extent of the information as with the depth of the impression.

The youthful Lincoln pondered also over the Revised Statutes of Indiana; and "he would sit in the twilight and read a dictionary as long as he could see." John Hanks said: "When Abe and I returned to the house from work he would go to the cupboard, snatch a piece of corn-bread, take down a book, sit down, cock his legs up as high as his head, and read."

At twenty-four, when he was supposed to be keeping a shop, Nicolay and Hay speak of the "grotesque youth, habited in homespun tow, lying on his back, with his feet on the trunk of the tree, and poring over his books by the hour, grinding around with the shade as it shifted from north to east."

The youth not only read and thought, but wrote, among other things, nonsensical verses;and he composed speeches. He went early into politics, and soon became a thoughtful and effective speaker and debater. Of the language that Lincoln heard and used in boyhood, says Nicolay, in an essay on "Lincoln's Literary Experiments" printed since the "Life" was issued, "though the vocabulary was scanty, the words were short and forcible." He learned among


men and women poor and inured to hardship how the plain people think and feel.

In his young manhood at Springfield he measured wits with other bright young lawyers, in plain and direct language before plain and simple-minded auditors, either in political discussion or in the court-room; either in the capital or in the country towns of Illinois. His mathematical and legal studies were an aid to precise statement, and his native honesty made him frank and convincing in argument. He felt himself to be a poor defender of a guilty client, and sometimes shirked the job.

If for a brief period in his youth he indulged in anything resembling the spread-eagle style of oratory, he was quick, as Nicolay declares, to realize the danger and overcome the temptation. His secretary relates that in his later years he used to repeat with glee the description of the Southwestern orator of whom it is said: "He mounted the rostrum, threw back his head, shined his eyes, and left the consequences to God."

By practice in extemporary speaking Lincoln learned to do a most difficult thing--namely, to produce literature on his legs. It is difficult thus to produce literature, because the words must flow with immediate precision. It is unusual for a politician to go through life always


addressing audiences, and yet always avoiding the orator's temptation to please and captivate by extravagant and false sentiment and statement. The writer, and particularly the political writer, is tempted to this sort of immorality, but still more the speaker, for with the latter the reward of applause is prompt and seductive. It it amazing to look over Lincoln's record and find how seldom he went beyond bounds, how fair and just he was, how responsible and conscientious his utterances long before these utterances became of national importance. Yet it was largely because of this very quality that they assumed national importance. And then both his imagination and his sympathy helped him here, for while he saw and keenly felt his own side of the argument, he could see as clearly, and he could sympathetically understand, the side of his opponent.

Lincoln was barely twenty-three when, as a candidate for the legislature, he issued a formal address to the people of Sangamon County. It is the first paper preserved by Nicolay and Hay in their collection of his addresses and letters. Nicolay well says that "as a literary production no ordinary college graduate would need to be ashamed of it."

In this address we already find that honest purpose, that "sweet reasonableness" and


persuasiveness of speech, which is characteristic of his later and more celebrated utterances. In his gathered writings and addresses we find, indeed, touches of the true Lincoln genius here and there from the age of twenty-three on. In the literary record of about his thirty-third year occur some of the most surprising proofs of the delicacy of his nature--of that culture of the soul which had taken place in him in the midst of such harsh and unpromising environment. Reference is made to the letters written to his young friend Joshua F. Speed, a member of the Kentucky family associated by marriage with the family of the poet Keats.

In Lincoln's early serious verse the feeling is right, though the art is lacking; but the verses are interesting in that they show a good ear. Note has been made of a pleasing cadence in Lincoln's prose; and it is not strange that he should show a rythmical sense in his verse. He showed a good deal of common sense in not going on with this sort of thing, and in confining the publication of his inadequate rhymes to the sacred privacy of indulgent and sympathetic friendship.

We come now to Lincoln the accomplished orator. His speech in Congress on the 28th of January, 1848, on the Mexican War, strikes the note of solemn verity and of noble indignation


which a little later rang through the country, and, with other voices, aroused it to a sense of impending danger.

It was in 1851 that he wrote some family letters that not only show him in a charming light as the true and wise friend of his shiftless step-brother, but the affectionate guardian of his step-mother, who had been such a good mother to him. There is something Greek in the clear phrase and pure reason of these epistles.

Dear Brother: When I came into Charleston day before yesterday, I learned that you are anxious to sell the land where you live and move to Missouri. I have been thinking of this ever since, and cannot but think such a notion is utterly foolish. What can you do in Missouri better than here? Is the land any richer? Can you there, any more than here, raise corn and wheat and oats without work? Will anybody there, any more than here, do your work for you ? If you intend to go to work, there is no better place than right where you are; if you do not intend to go to work, you cannot get along anywhere. Squirming and crawling about from place to place can do no good. You have raised no crop this year; and what you really want is to sell the land, get the money, and spend it. Part with the land you have, and, my life upon it, you will never after own a spot big enough to bury you in.

We find in his Peoria speech of 1854 a statement


of his long contention against the extension of slavery, and a proof of his ability to cope intellectually with the ablest debaters of the West. His Peoria speech was in answer to Judge Douglas, with whom four years afterward he held the far-resounding debate. Lincoln was now forty-five years old, and his oratory contains that moral impetus which was to give it greater and greater power.

In 1856 occurred the Fremont and Dayton campaign, which came not very far from being the Fremont and Lincoln campaign. In a speech in this campaign he used a memorable phrase: "All this talk about the dissolution of the Union is humbug, nothing but folly. We do not want to dissolve the Union; you shall not." In his famous speech delivered at Springfield, Illinois, at the close of the Republican State Convention of 1858,--in which he had been named as candidate for United States Senator,--the skilful and serious orator rises not merely to the broad level of nationality, but to the plane of universal humanity. As events thicken and threaten, his style becomes more solemn. So telling at last his power of phrase that it would hardly seem to be an exaggeration to declare that the war itself was partly induced by the fact that Abraham Lincoln was able to express his pregnant thoughts with the art of a


master. How familiar now these words of prophecy:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall-- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

The cadence of Lincoln's prose with its burden of high hope, touched with that heroism which is so near to pathos, reminds one of the Leit-motif, the "leading motive" in symphony and music-drama of which musicians make use, and which is especially characteristic of the manner of Wagner:

Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. Did we brave all then to falter now --now, when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered, and belligerent? The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail--if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come.


I have arrived now at the period of the joint debate between Lincoln and Douglas. In Lincoln we have the able and practised attorney, with one side of his nature open to the eternal; in Douglas the skilful lawyer, adroit and ambitious, not easily moved by the moral appeals which so quickly took hold upon Lincoln, but a man capable of right and patriotic action when the depths of his nature were stirred.

Among the most characteristic qualities of Lincoln's expression are its morality, its insight, and its prophecy; and in the now famous debate he reached well-nigh the fullness of his power to put great thoughts into fitting language. Straight his words went into the minds and hearts of eagerly listening crowds. The question, he contended, was as to the right or the wrong of slavery:

That [he said] is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings.


A recent biographer of Lincoln, Mr. John T. Morse, Jr., says that "it is just appreciation, not extravagance, to say that the cheap and miserable little volume, now out of print, containing in bad newspaper type, ‘The Lincoln and Douglas Debates,’ holds some of the masterpieces of oratory of all ages and nations."

It is interesting to recall the fact that, in the pause of his affairs after the debate with Douglas, Lincoln took up the then popular custom of lyceum-lecturing. In the very year before his election to the Presidency the great statesman and orator was engaged in delivering a totally uninspired lecture on "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements" in towns near Springfield, and in Springfield itself on Washington's Birthday in the fateful year of 1860. There was little in this lecture to attract the slightest attention; and while it may have given satisfaction among neighbors, it could never have added to his fame. Yet when he had the opportunity of an engagement to lecture on political subjects in this same month of February, he made what is now known as the "great address" at Cooper Union. Soon after this came his nomination, then his election to the Presidency of the United States; and with these events he may be said to have resumed his true literary career, for (as I have said) his style was at its best only when


he was dealing with a cause in which his whole heart was enlisted.

By way of contrast to what has passed and is to come, let us cull some of the passages in which shone Lincoln's wit and humor. How pleasing it is to know that his melancholy nature, his burdened spirit, were refreshed with glimpses-- often storms--of mirth ! They say that to see Lincoln laugh was an amazing sight.

The humor of which we learn so much from those who heard him tell his quaint and often Rabelaisian stories came out sharply and roughly in one of his congressional speeches, in which he referred with grim sarcasm to General Cass's military record as used for political ammunition. Here are some later touches of his wit: "The plainest print cannot be read through a gold eagle." "If you think you can slander a woman into loving you, or a man into voting for you, try it till you are satisfied." Again: "Has Douglas the exclusive right in this country to be on all sides of all questions?" Again: "In his numerous speeches now being made in Illinois, Senator Douglas regularly argues against the doctrine of the equality of men; and while he does not draw the conclusion that the superiors ought to enslave the inferiors, he evidently wishes his hearers to draw that conclusion. He shirks the responsibility of pulling the house


down, but he digs under it that it may fall of its own weight."

"The enemy would fight," said the President once, in a letter to General Hooker, "in intrenchments, and have you at a disadvantage, and so, man for man, worst you at that point, while his main force would in some way be getting an advantage of you northward. In one word, I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear without a fair chance to gore one way and kick the other." It was also to Hooker that he wrote: "Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."

In a letter written in 1859 to a Boston committee he said, in describing a change in party standards: "I remember being once much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engaged in a fight with their greatcoats on, which fight, after a long and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men." And this is from his very last public address: "Concede that the


new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it."

A specimen of his spoken wit is the story told of his reply to the countryman who at a reception said,--in the prepared speech that patriots so often shoot at the President as they plunge past him in the processions through the White House,--"I believe in God Almighty and Abraham Lincoln." "You're more than half right," quickly answered the President. When, at a conference with Confederate leaders, he was reminded by the Southern commissioner, Mr. Hunter, that Charles I entered into an agreement with "parties in arms against the government," Lincoln said: "I do not profess to be posted in history. In all such matters I will turn you over to Seward. All I distinctly recollect about the case of Charles I is that he lost his head."

Lincoln was elected to the Presidency of a country on the verge of civil war. In his farewell to his fellow-townsmen sounds again that musical "motive" of which I have spoken, recurring like the refrain of a sad but heroic poem. Remember the passage quoted before. It occurred in his speech of 1858: "The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail--if we stand firm,


we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come."

In parting from his old neighbors he said:

Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting In Him, who can go with me and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.

The First Inaugural concludes with a passage of great tenderness. We learn from Nicolay and Hay that the suggestion of that passage, its first draft indeed, came from Seward. But compare this first draft with the passage as amended and adopted by Lincoln! This is Seward's:

I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet again harmonize in their


ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

And this is Lincoln's:

I am loth to close. 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 this 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.

There is in this last something that suggests music; again we hear the strain of the Leitmotif. Strangely enough, in 1858 Lincoln himself had used a figure not the same as, but suggestive of, this very one now given by Seward. He was speaking of the moral sentiment, the sentiment of equality, in the Declaration of Independence. "That," he said, "is the electric chord in that Declaration, that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."

In the final pargaraph of the Second Inaugural we find again the haunting music with which the First Inaugural closed. On the heart


of what American--North or South--are not the words imprinted?

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.

As the great musician brings somewhere to its highest expression the motive which has been entwined from first to last in his music-drama, so did the expression of Lincoln's passion for his country reach its culmination in the tender and majestic phrases of the Gettysburg Address:

In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow--this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that


cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

But there is a letter of Lincoln's which may well be associated with the Gettysburg Address. It was written, just one year after the delivery of the Address, to a mother who, the President heard, had lost five sons in the army. I believe the number was not so large, though that does not matter.

Washington, November 21, 1864.
MRS. BIXBY, Boston, Massachusetts.

DEAR MADAM : I have been shown in the files of the War Department a, statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved


and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

This letter of consolation in its simplicity and fitness again recalls the Greek spirit. It is like one of those calm monuments of grief which the traveler may still behold in that small cemetery under the deep Athenian sky, where those who have been dead so many centuries are kept alive in the memories of men by an art which is immortal.




Copyright 1901 by The Century Co. Printed by special permission.