Abraham Lincoln’s Words

Abraham Lincoln’s Words


Featured Book

(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Abraham Lincoln knew words were important. His penchant for stories both prevented him from miscommunication and forced his listeners to think about what he intended to say. He understood the nature of the relationship between the leader and his audience. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that in Lincoln’s time: “The principal weapon of political combatants was the speech. A gift for oratory was the key to success in politics. Even as a child, Lincoln had honed his skills by addressing his companions from a tree stump. Speeches on important occasions were exhaustively researched and closely reasoned, often lasting three or four hours. There was demagoguery, of course, but there were also metaphor and references to literature and classical history and occasionally, as with some of Lincoln’s speeches, a lasting literary glory.”1

Mr. Lincoln began his public speaking very early – imitating the style and sermons of preachers for fellow children in Indiana. As a young man in Illinois his speaking ability came as a surprise to listeners – especially when compared to his rough and rude appearance. Decades later, friends remembered the first time they heard him address a crowd. Fellow attorney Stephen T. Logan recalled that when he first heard Mr. Lincoln as a legislative candidate in 1832, “The manner of Mr. Lincoln’s speech then was very much the same as his speeches in after life – that is the same peculiar characteristics were apparent then, though of course in after years he evinced both more knowledge and experience. But he had then the same novelty and the same peculiarity in presenting his ideas. He had the same individuality that he kept up through all his life.”2

Simplicity and logic were the foundations of Mr. Lincoln’s communication. He was more plain spoken than most noted speakers of his day. Historian Jean H. Baker wrote: “Lincoln wrote for a vast audience. In one form or another, most Americans know at least parts of a story that came to include the author as a principal agent of his plot. Most of Lincoln’s tale was well-told in the chaste style that the critic Edmund Wilson once complimented as ‘more efficient…, terser and less pretentious’ than other writers of his time. Such spare prose separated him from the nineteenth-century authors of lush expression.”3

Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “To approach Lincoln’s presidency from the aspect of his writing is to come to grips with the degree to which his pen, to alter the proverb, became his sword, arguably his most powerful presidential weapon.”4 He noted that President Lincoln “responded to almost every important development during his presidency, and to many that were not so important, with some act of writing.” 5 Theodore C. Blegen wrote in a study of Lincoln’s writings: “Lincoln had something to say that he believed in, and he said it with force. Hundreds of writers have showered his rhetorical power with friendly adjectives in their efforts to explain that force. He respected the meanings of words, and he wrote and spoke with clarity. He knew what he was talking about. He had consummate skill in logical analysis. He was able to put profound thoughts simply. He was sincere and earnest. He had both dignity and humor. He could rise to a lofty eloquence that has not been surpassed in the history of oratory. His language was pungent and he knew the art of timing. He was a master of balance and had an ear for rhythm.”6

But such mastery did not come without effort. For major messages, Mr. Lincoln engaged in a lengthy process of thought and preparation. “Lincoln always composed slowly, and he often wrote and rewrote his more elaborate productions several times,” observed journalist Noah Brooks. “I happened to be with him often while he was composing his message to Congress, which was sent in while William T. Sherman had gone, and the secret was very well preserved. The President hoped, from day to day, that Sherman would be heard from, or that something would happen to give him an opportunity to enlighten ‘and possibly congratulate the country,’ as he put it. But December came, and there were no tidings from Sherman, though everybody was hungry with expectation, and feverish with anxiety. The President’s message first written with pencil on stiff sheets of white pasteboard, or boxboard, a good supply of which he kept by him. These sheets, fix or six inches wide, could be laid on the writer’s knees, as he sat comfortably in his arm-chair, in his favorite position, with his legs crossed.”7

Mr. Lincoln composed his thoughts and then looked for an appropriate vehicle for their distribution. His response to Greeley’s “Prayer of Twenty Millions” had largely been composed in advance, wrote Douglas Wilson.8 Actual composition of major works was often done as a matter of stitching together such notes and then embroidering them. Wilson wrote that one of Mr. Lincoln’s writing characteristics was “being patient and being prepared to take full advantage of opportunities that may present themselves. His activity as a prewriter is also an unmistakable indication of the prominence and, increasingly as president, the priority that he gave to writing as a prime tool in the conduct of his office.” He collected ideas on “scraps of paper” and later wove them together into state papers and speeches.9

Mr. Lincoln tried out ideas on individuals before immortalizing them in his state papers – such as his open letters to editor Horace Greeley, Democratic Congressman Erastus Corning, and Springfield friend James Conkling.. Historian Allen C. Guelzo observed: “Lincoln’s skill with the public letter was second only to the rhetorical skills he manifested in his formal and informal speeches.”10 Such letters allowed Mr. Lincoln to engage his opponents in a one-man dialogue. So too did his major messages to Congress. Historian Michael Nelson wrote: “In an era when presidential speech-making was largely confined to ceremonial occasions, one of Lincoln’s favorite media for communicating with the American people was letters to individuals that he intended to become public knowledge.”11 Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “The Conkling letter was…noticeable for the prominence of one particular rhetorical device: the repeated, jabbing interrogatory – Are you for it? Does it appear otherwise to you? – and the semi-interrogatory that jumps ahead to put a response to a question into the hear’s mouths – You desire peace, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro, I suppose you do not, You say you will not fight to fight to free negroes. This use of prolepsis (the anticipation of a question or objection) was a favorite of Lincoln’s as early as his Lyceum Speech of 1838 and figures largely in many of the speeches he gave in 1859″ in Ohio.”12

Such writing was not done quickly. It good long thought and preparation. Wilson wrote: “If the Greeley, Corning and Conkling letters suggest a pattern, it is that when Lincoln seized upon a theme, he began making notes and looking for a suitable occasion” to present them.” 13 Mr. Lincoln not only tried out ideas on paper. He tried them out on people. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote that Mr. Lincoln was “a man who habitually read things aloud to hear how they sounded and who needed a live audience to get the right effect…”14 Noah Brooks wrote: “One night, taking one of these slips out of his drawer, with a great affectation of confidential secrecy, he said, ‘I expect you want to know all about General William T. Sherman’s raid?’ Naturally I answered in the affirmative, when he said, ‘Well, then, I’ll read you this paragraph from my message.’ The paragraph, however, was curiously non-committal, merely referring to ‘General Sherman’s attempted march of three hundred miles directly through the insurgent region,’ and gave no indication whatever of the direction of the march, or of the point from which news from him was expected. Laying the paper down, and taking off his spectacles, the President laughed heartily at my disappointment, but added, kindly, ‘Well, my dear fellow, that’s all that Congress will know about it anyhow.”15

Friend Joshua F. Speed wrote: “I have often been asked where Lincoln got his style. His father had but few books. The Bible, Esop’s Fables, Weem’s Life of Washington, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. These he almost committed to memory. From these I suppose he got his style.”16 Lincoln scholar Paul M. Angle dismissed the impact of most of Mr. Lincoln’s reading on his writing style although he acknowledged that his reading of poetry “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 with extended back to his youth he could always depend. He frequently took a text from it – as when he opened one of his great 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.”17 The rhythm Mr. Lincoln ingested was a spoken one. Douglas Wilson wrote that Mr. Lincoln’s “basic sense of language, like the poet’s is aural; he hears it. Having learned to read aloud and having continued the practice into adulthood, Lincoln, even as president, persisted in reading aloud to his friends.” 18

Indeed, Mr. Lincoln’s great short speeches – Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural – read like prose poems. Scholar James Hurt wrote: “Lincoln’s greatest speeches have the kind of resonance that we associate with poetry, a reverberation through multiple levels of experience, both public and private. And the mediating force that links these levels of experience is his imagery. During the period of intensive self-examination and self-development which Lincoln underwent between the ages of about twenty-two and twenty-eight, he seems to have come to define himself and his lifework in terms of images already well established in his culture, images of family rivalry, of distant perspectives, and of the earth and the span of human life.”19 Another scholar, James A. Stevenson, wrote that “it is largely owing to the reading and writing of poetry that Lincoln acquired the competence to write his mature prose with the rhythm, alliteration, imagery, economy of words, and flexibility of structure that so distinguish it. After the 1840s, Lincoln’s best prose passages not only contained a frequent use of imagery and metaphor, but they were guided by a sense of vernacular sound and rhythm as well as meaning and logic. Although this aesthetic accomplishment peaked during the years of his presidency, it had its origins in his poetic efforts of the 1840s.”20

Illinois lawyer Robert G. Ingersoll, himself a noted speaker, wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was an orator – clear, sincere, natural. He did not pretend. He did not say what he thought others thought, but what he thought. If you wish to be sublime you must be natural &ndash you must keep close to the grass. You must sit by the fireside of the heart: above the clouds it is too cold. You must be simple in your speech: too much polish suggests insincerity.”21 Mr. Lincoln did not try to impress; he sought to persuade his listeners, primarily with facts and logic. As Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller observed: “Lincoln had the rhetorical obligations of an American president. He was obligated to be moral rhetor to the whole nation. The key is being a rhetor – one who persuades – is always the audience.”

Mr. Lincoln’s language was conceptual but it was also metaphorical. Mr. Lincoln was a master of metaphor. Theodore C. Blegen wrote that Mr. Lincoln “had an almost inexhaustible fund of metaphors and similes out of the common things of life which, with what seems effortless ease, he drew upon to add vividness and clarity to his thoughts and arguments.” 22 His “mind moved freely in the language of imagery. Inevitably, lacking false pride in words, he employed literally hundreds of figures of speech that were part of the common stock of the English language, and he did so with the naturalness of an agile mind that grasped all available instruments of clear and vivid expression. They have perhaps been overshadowed and little noted because so many of his similes and metaphors are stamped with his own individual flavor and accent.” Douglas L. Wilson observed that Mr. Lincoln often “let the energized language flow as much as possible in drafting (or, as with brief notes, predrafting), knowing that it can always be reconsidered and toned down, if necessary, in revision.”

Lincoln scholar Paul Angle observed that Mr. Lincoln’s “effectiveness with words came gradually.”25 He increasingly tried to create word pictures for his listeners. Noah Brooks wrote: “His earlier addresses showed, perhaps, more use of figures of speech that did his later ones. Criticizing that part of President James K. Polk’s message which referred to the Mexican war, Lincoln, then a representative in Congress, compared it to ‘the half-insane mumbling of a fever-dream.’ In the same speech he described military glory as ‘the attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood; the serpent’s eye that charms to destroy.’ I do not now recall a more striking picture, drawn by Lincoln, than this description of the helpless state of the American slave in 1857. ‘They have him in his prison-house,’ said he. ‘They have searched his person and have left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.'”26

U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon recalled: “In one of his messages to Congress Mr. Lincoln used the term ‘sugar-coated.’ When the document was placed in the hands of the public printer, Hon. John D. Defrees, that officer was terribly shocked and offended. Mr. Defrees was an accomplished scholar, a man of fastidious taste, and a devoted friend of the President, with whom he was on terms of great intimacy. It would never do to leave the forbidden term in the message; it must be expunged, – otherwise it would forever remain a ruinous blot on the fair fame of the President. In great distress and mortification the good Defrees hurried away to the White House, where he told Mr. Lincoln plainly that “sugar-coated” was not in good taste.

“You ought to remember, Mr. President,” said he, “that a message to the Congress of the United States is quite a different thing from a speech before a mass meeting in Illinois; that such messages become a part of the history of the country, and should therefore be written with scrupulous care and propriety. Such an expression in a State paper is undignified, and if I were you I would alter the structure of the whole sentence.”

Mr. Lincoln laughed, and then said with a comical show of gravity: “John, that term expresses precisely my idea, and I am not going to change it. ‘Sugar-coated’ must stand! The time will never come in this country when the people will not understand exactly what ‘sugar-coated’ means.” Mr. Defrees was obliged to yield, and the message was printed without amendment.27

“‘Sugar-coated’ is, in fact, a key word in Lincoln’s message,” noted Douglas L. Wilson. 28 “Though Lincoln does not appear to have used much imagery in his letters and speeches, his innumerable good sayings were pregnant with meaning; as Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, his fables were so wise that in an earlier time he would have been a mythological character, like Aesop,” wrote Noah Brooks. “His parables were similes. His figures of speech, used sparingly, were homely and vigorous, the offspring of an uncultivated imagination, rather than of a mind stored with the thoughts of the great men of all ages. The simplest incidents of every-day life furnished him with similes. In one of his speeches in the famous campaign with Stephen A. Douglas, he said, referring to the suppression of political debate, ‘These popular sovereigns are at their work, blowing out the moral lights around us.’ This figure of blowing out the lights is not only a simple one, but highly suggestive of the homely incident which was in the mind of the speaker; an affected or fastidious person would have weakly said, ‘extinguishing.'”29

Mr. Lincoln used images from the frontier life with which he was familiar. Theodore C. Blegen wrote: “The homely quality in the style of Lincoln owes not a little to his familiarity with the earthiness of pioneer farming, of soil and implements and animals and produce. Who but the prairie statesman could have said as President, after completing an irksome task. ‘Well, I have got that job husked out’? Or what chief executive, discounting his influence in the arena of his war secretary, could have confessed, ‘I don’t amount to pig tracks in the War Department’?” 30 James Russell Lowell, the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly and himself an accomplished writer and poet, wrote: “One of the things particularly admirable in the public utterances of President Lincoln is a certain tone of familiar dignity, which, while it is perhaps the most difficult attainment of mere style, is also no doubtful indication of personal character. There must be something essentially noble in an elective ruler who can descend to the leel of confidential ease without forfeiting respect, something very manly in one who can break through the etiquette of his conventional rank and trust himself to the reason and intelligence of those who have elected him.”31

As with his repeated use of stories, Mr. Lincoln returned repeatedly to rhetorical fields he had previously plowed. One such field was “eggs.” Blegen noted: “In one speech, he said, ‘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.’ And he gave the egg metaphor a somewhat different turn when he urged that the Republican Party should not be ‘a mere sucked egg, all shell and no meat, the principle all sucked out.’ In yet another context, he remarked, ‘Instead of settling one dispute by deciding the question, I should merely furnish a nest full of eggs for hatching new disputes.'”32 Wilson notes that when President Lincoln prepared his reply to Horace Greeley’s “Prayer of Twenty Millions” in August 1862, Mr. Lincoln included the metaphor “Broken eggs can never be mended, and the longer the breaking proceeds the more will be broken.” The phrase was eliminated at the insistence of editors of the National Intelligencer, who published Mr. Lincoln’s reply.33

After passage fo the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1864, Mr. Lincoln honed his use of facts and history to develop a closely reasoned argument. A Massachusetts man who heard Mr. Lincoln speak in Chicago recalled that he “remembered nothing that he said, but I well remember that I was impressed with his logical and reflective power, and the absence of all attempt throughout his speech to produce a sensational effect: and his speaking seemed in these respects to differ from the style then prevalent at the West.” One Democrat complained after listening to Mr. Lincoln deliver a stump speech: “He’s a dangerous man, sir! A d-d dangerous man! He makes you believe what he says, in spite of yourself!” 34 Journalist Moncure D. Conway, wrote after hearing Mr. Lincoln speak in 1859 in Cincinnati: “I perceived that there was a certain artistic ability in him as a public speaker…for perfect tones; for quiet, chaste, and dignified manner; it would be hard to find his superior.”35

Mr. Lincoln avoided oratorical flights common to political contemporaries. Lincoln biographer James G. Randall wrote: “The tricks of the agitator or demagogue were foreign to Lincoln’s nature. He avoided emotional harangues. This avoidance was total; his manner was not that of the rabble rouser, the passionate orator, the professional patrioteer. There was in Lincoln more of Euclid than of Demosthenes. He kept on a conservative keel, yet managed to infuse into his leadership enough stirring enthusiasm to rally the reformer and to make a campaign seem a crusade for a cause. Few leaders were less given to sentimentalism; few were more concerned with reason and mental testing…”36

Brooks speculated: “Perhaps his exceeding plainness of speech detracted somewhat from the real depth of his thought, but he was acute rather than profound; and I am inclined to think that those who were nearest him during the last years of his life were impressed by the swiftness and the correctness of his intuitions, rather than by the originality and profundity of his reasoning. Some of the more radical members of his party were impatient with his ‘exasperating slowness’; but I never heard any criticize him for lack of speed in arriving at a rational conclusion when he had once undertaken an argument on any subject whatever.”37

Historian Randall wrote that Lincoln “was no stranger to the arts of rhetoric. No one could rightly call his speeches crude; on the contrary they sometimes rose to the heigh of literary mastery, though in familiar conversation and informal utterance he lapsed into colloquialisms. Not offending the scholar, his addresses seized the understanding of the man in the street. He had his own style, his special tang. In all his careful expression there was simplicity combined with distinction, an economy of competently chosen words, an easy flow of sentences, and a readiness in epigram which served well in the place of brilliant scintillation. Some of his statements have that unerring quality of hitting the target that stamps them as proverbs or aphorisms.”38

Friend William Jayne wrote that “Mr. Lincoln’s language and style were Anglo-Saxon, he was not a classical scholar, his words were English pure and clear. He had great power of condensation, used no unnecessary words. The common people understood his arguments.”39 Another Springfield contemporary, James C. Conkling wrote that Mr. Lincoln “used plain Saxon words, which imparted strength to his style, at the expense, it may be, of elegance, but which were understood and appreciated by the masses of the people.” 40 Eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln wrote that his father “was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid. I cannot remember any peculiarity about his posture; he wrote sitting at a table and, as I remember, in an ordinary posture. As to dictation, I never saw him dictate to anyone, and it certainly was not his practice to do so. He seemed to think nothing of the labor of writing personally and was accustomed to make many scarps of notes and memoranda. In writing a careful letter, he first wrote it himself, then corrected it, and the rewrote the corrected version himself.”41

In the process, Mr. Lincoln produced some of the most memorable phrases in American history. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that Mr. Lincoln was “the author of a multitude of good sayings, so disguised as pleasantries that it is certain they had no reputation at first but as jests ; and only later, by the very acceptance and adoption they find in the mouths of millions, turn out to be the wisdom of the hour. I am sure if this man had ruled in a period of less facility of printing, he would have become mythological in a very few years, like Aesop or Pilpay, or one of the Seven Wise Masters, by his fables and proverbs. But the weight and penetration of many passages in his letters, messages and speeches, hidden now by the very closeness of their application to the moment, are destined hereafter to wide fame. What pregnant definitions; what unerring common sense; what fore-sight ; and, on great occasion, what lofty, and more than national, what humane tone!”42

Mr. Lincoln was a persuader. He wanted to engage his opponents through reasoned argument. Springfield attorney Charles Zane observed: “Intelligent men with impartial and liberal minds, while listening to Lincoln’s arguments, appeared to want to agree with him. He never awakened prejudice by narrow and uncharitable statements or inferences. He never unnecessarily irritated his adversaries. While he did not arouse the passions of the ‘hurrah boys’ as much as some other speakers, his influence was greater with thinking men.”43

Although logic was fundamental to Mr. Lincoln’s rhetoric, he was not above devastating attacks on political opponents. Lois Einhorn noted that Mr. Lincoln “frequently employed raucous ridicule, stinging sarcasm and rapid repartee. Whereas Lincoln used stories primarily to make his points, ridicule served him as a negative medium used primarily to refute the points of others by exposing spurious logic and unmasking vice and folly.” Einhorn observed that “Like his constructive humor, Lincoln’s destructive humor often employed logical reasoning, exaggeration, and frontier language. He typically refuted spurious logic with logic, taking an opponent’s argument to its logical extreme to show the absurdity of the argument.”44

In the 1850s, naturally enough, he usually targeted Stephen A. Douglas. Theodore C. Blegen wrote: “In the days of his spirited battles with Douglas he once compared the judge with the old woman who ‘trusted in Providence till the ‘britchin’ broke, and then….didn’t know what on airth to do.’ Suppose, he said in Chicago in 1858, Republicans endorse Douglas for the Senate. Where then, he asked, do you stand? ‘Plainly,’ he replied to his own question, ‘you stand ready saddled, bridled and harnessed and waiting to be driven over the slavery extension camp of the nation…every man with a rope around his neck, that halter being held by Judge Douglas.”45 Douglas also inspired Mr. Lincoln’s use of animal metaphors. Blegen wrote: “Bears, dogs, other animals, and bees and birds often came to his mind as he sought telling comparisons. Douglas was, of course, the victim of his sharpest gibes. ‘I might as well preach Christianity to a grizzly bear as to preach Jefferson and Jackson to him,’ he wrote in notes for a speech in 1858….In mock alarm he taunted Douglas in a Chicago speech by saying that he is ‘not a dead lion, nor even a living one – he is the rugged Russian bear!'”46

Mr. Lincoln knew his audiences. Attorney Zane recalled: “Mr. Lincoln gauged – no man more accurately – the essential difference between speeches in the courts and on the political platform. I had been in the office of the Secretary of State of Illinois when it was finally determined that Senator Douglas would have a majority on joint ballot of the members elected to the legislature, and had seen how philosophically he took his defeat and disappointment. He said: ‘It hurts too much to laugh and I am too big to cry.’ Then as he started out to the Secretary’s office, he said: ‘Well, I shall now have to get down to the practice. It is an easy matter to adjust a grain harvester to tall or short grain by raising or lowering the sickle, but it is not so easy to change our feelings and modes of expression to suit the stump or the bar.”47

Mr. Lincoln understood his own limitations. Lincoln scholar Elwin Page wrote; “Lincoln as a speaker did not at once compel attention. If men listened carefully, they were at length aroused to moral conviction as they were carried along by this ‘irresistible logical force and power.’ Even Democrats were not immune, whether in Concord or elsewhere. But Lincoln had to be given time and attention, else the power did not penetrate.”48 As he spoke, Mr. Lincoln literally warmed up body and mind. He became more animated. His whole long body became part of the message. Unfavorable first impressions quickly turned to deep respect.

“Judge Fifter of Bloomington records a similar impression of Lincoln,” wrote Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell. “The first time that Judge Fifter heard Lincoln was in September, 1858, at Bloomington. Douglas had spoken there to such good purpose that Lincoln’s backers &ndash Leonard Swett, Jesse Fell and judge David Davis &ndash three as important men as he had behind him – urged him to make a reply. Judge Fifter describes how he and his brother worked their way to the edge of the platform. After ‘a beautiful introduction’ by Leonard Swett, Lincoln rose. ‘It seemed like he never would get through getting up,’ Fifter said. ‘It was hard for him to get started, and one of the boys near me said we ought to have nominated Swett. By when he once got hold of himself I never heard such a speech; it fairly raised the hair on my head and made my heart stop beating. The crowd was silent as death, their faces riveted upon him; he was the most earnest man I ever heard talk.'”49

Mr. Lincoln’s sincere belief in his own arguments was the key to his effectiveness. But his stamina was also important. Springfield attorney Charles S. Zane contended that when giving public speeches, Mr. Lincoln “used few gestures and he was never vehement; he always expressed his earnestness in his utterances and in his countenance; once, on returning from a meeting where he had spoken for an hour, I said: ‘You must have about worn out.’ He said: ‘No, I can speak three or four hours at a time without feeling weary.”50

Humility was central to Mr. Lincoln’s public persona. Waldo Braden wrote: “The ultimate test of rhetorical choice is how it influences the listeners, that is, achieves the speaker’s persuasive goals, In the case of Lincoln, his reluctance played well in the scenario of his overall strategy. It was, of course, an extension of his previous persuasion built around the humble man, Ole-Abe-image of past days. In the presidential role, he did not change; he continued to come across as a modest, down-to-earth, ordinary Westerner who was struggling to do the best that he could in the fact of a fearsome burden. As always, he remained self-depreciating, speaking of being ‘an accidental instrument,’ ‘a mere accident,’ ‘a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty.’ He accounted for the receptions afford him and his family as what the people would have shown any person in his position. At Buffalo, he proffered for example, that he was ‘unwilling’ to regard the ‘demonstrations as tendered to him personally.’ Instead he thought that ‘they were tendered to the country, to the institutions of the country and the perpetuity of the liberties of the country.’ The shifting of the attention from himself to others was a frequent ploy of the modest Westerner.” 51

A young Springfield teenager who knew Mr. Lincoln recalled the advice he gave him about public speaking: ‘Try to think they’re your own words, and talked them as you would talked them to me,’ was his advice after I had ranted in school boy manner. He insisted, too, on the importance of learning, in early life, sentiments expressed by verse. In effect he said that as a man grows older lines which he learned because of their pleasant sound come to have a meaning; just as old saws show their truth in later life; ‘It is a pleasure,’ he said, ‘to be able to quote lines to fit any occasion,’ and he noted that the Bible is the richest source of pertinent quotations. I think Mr. Lincoln had much to do with creating whatever ambition I had for the reading of history, on which he placed great stress.”52

Mr. Lincoln understood that it was one thing to make a political speech for partisan effect. It was quite another to make an impromptu speech that had national policy consequences. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote increasingly as a politician in the 1850s, he had spoken in public only on well-deliberated themes, using carefully prepared arguments, and leaving as little as possible to the inspiration of the moment. As president, he had, it seemed, almost a phobia about speaking without a prepared text.”53

During the 1850s, Mr. Lincoln refined his arguments regarding the necessity to quarantine slavery in the South. So although he was often called on to give impromptu speeches during the years between 1854 and 1860, he did so after careful research and consideration of the topics he covered. According to Historian Richard J. Carwardine, “What made his speeches compelling was a lawyer’s mode of analysis allied to a Clay-like earnestness. His oratory fell into the ‘forensic’ category of Whig rhetoric, typified by historical review, the examination of precedents, close questioning and the call to arms against an identified threat.”54

Mr. Lincoln learned from experience. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “Having been victimized by his unbuttoned Chicago remarks in 1858, Lincoln, once elected to the presidency, stubbornly refused to make unscripted, impromptu speeches. Fearful of saying something inadvertently that might be susceptible of an adverse interpretation, he persisted, when unprepared, in saying little more than ‘thank you,’ even to the crowds of well-wishers who came to the White House to serenade him.”55 Mr. Lincoln never simple asserted. He argued.

Some experts like biographer Mark Neely, Jr. and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer have argued that Mr. Lincoln was a failure as an impromptu speaker. Holzer wrote that Mr. Lincoln “might have refined his skills at impromptu oratory, but he did not, He might have artfully used gestures to entertain his audiences, but apparently did not. He might have filled the void between expectation and performance by delivering more formal speeches, but he did not even do this. And he remained perpetually ambivalent about which form of expression was most proper. As he said in his second lecture on discoveries and inventions in 1859, ‘Speech alone, valuable as it ever has been, and is, has not advanced the condition of the world much….Writing…is the great invention of the world.’ Yet in that very same lecture he contradicted himself.’Writing,’ he said, ‘- although a wonderful auxiliary for speech, is not worthy substitute for it…One always has one’s tongue with him, and the breath of life is the ever-ready material with which it works.'”56

But Mr. Lincoln spoke too frequently and with too great effect during the pre-presidential years to be a failure. In the period after Cooper Union, he gave a total of 11 speeches, often more than one per day, throughout Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. He had the basis of Cooper Union arguments to guide him, but he needed to rework the material so it would seem new for his audiences. By the time he made his pre-inaugural trip from Illinois to Washington in February 1861, Mr. Lincoln was essentially determined to avoid saying things which would be interpreted as policy pronouncements. On the way from Philadelphia to Lancaster, President-elect Lincoln stopped briefly at Lancaster where he picked out a 6 foot-six inch resident to be his personal escort. Mr. Lincoln made a brief address from the balcony of Cadwell House: “I come before you to see and be seen, and as regards the ladies, I have the best of the bargain; but, as to the gentlemen, I cannot say as much. There is plenty of matter to speak about in these times, but it is well known that the more a man speaks the less he is understood – the more he says one thing, his adversaries contend he meant something else. I shall soon have occasion to speak officially, and then I will endeavor to put my thoughts just as plain as I can express myself, true to the Constitution and Union of all the states, and to the perpetual liberty of all the people. Until I so speak, there is no need to enter upon the details.”57

As President, Mr. Lincoln was determined to limit public comments which might be misinterpreted. He put his energy into carefully-crafted state papers. Lincoln scholar Waldo Braden wrote: “Those who depreciate Lincoln’s presidential speaking fail to take into account that his speaking was packed into a busy schedule and had to be made without reflection. Unlike twentieth century presidents, he had no staff of speech writers and stenographers on call to take shorthand and no recorder to capture what he said. As the war progressed, he became more wary about committing himself on substantive issues, usually getting by on as few words as possible.”58 Mr. Lincoln certain preferred not to give impromptu speeches in the White House. Knowing that any words he spoke had the quality of public policy, Mr. Lincoln was generally careful to control what he said and when he said it. Indeed, historian William E. Gienapp wrote: “One of the most surprising aspects of Lincoln’s tenure as president was his failure to make more speeches in order to rouse popular support for his policies. In this regard, he was entirely conventional, adhering to the tradition that a president refrain from campaigning or stump speaking. His reticence stood in sharp contrast to Confederate president Jefferson Davis….”59 who spoke more frequently and to less effect.

By December 1864, journalist Noah Brooks reported: “It is interesting and curious to observe how the President has grown morally and intellectually since he has been at the White House; take his messages and read them through ad seriatim and you will see his advancement in ability, logic and rhetoric, as evident as in the letters of a youth at school. The last message is a model of compact, strong sense, practical knowledge and argument, with all needful polish.”60 There was an economy to Mr. Lincoln’s writing which he was careful to hone. Waldo Braden wrote: “In contrast to the two and three-hour Lincoln campaign speeches, the presidential speeches were indeed brief. The First Inaugural (1861) was one of his longest after 1860 (about 3,400 words long) but the Gettysburg Address (170 words) took less than two minutes to deliver, and the Second Inaugural (694 words) was read probably in six to seven minutes. Often he spoke less than five minutes.”61

Paul M. Angle wrote: “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.”62 Concludes Douglas L. Wilson: “What is most astonishing about Lincoln’s performance in this regard is that he managed to bring his language within the range of ordinary vocabularies without cheapening his expression and, if anything, lending it even greater dignity.”63 In so doing, he ennobled himself and the Union he loved.


Book Review by Ted Widmer, Los Angeles Times: “Throughout ‘Lincoln’s Sword,’ we see the writer at work, scribbling thoughts on tiny scraps of paper as they occurred to him (he believed in a slow gestation process), then pulling the scraps out of his pockets and desk drawers, giving them numbers and assembling them into a single text….Wilson doggedly tracks every shred Lincoln wrote upon. One page shows his handwriting shaking, as he felt the vibrations on a train. It’s as if we’re in the seat next to him.”

More on the Author


  1. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 140.
  2. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 35 (Conversation with Stephen T. Logan, July 6, 1875) .
  3. James M. McPherson, editor, “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth, p. 34 (Jean H. Baker, “Lincoln’s Narrative of American Exceptionalism”).
  4. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 8.
  5. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 6.
  6. Theodore C. Blegen, Lincoln’s Imagery: A Study in Word Power, p. 1.
  7. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 262 (Noah Brooks).
  8. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, pp. 149-151.
  9. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 161.
  10. Allen C. Guelzo, Defending Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln and the Conkling Letter, 1863, Civil War History, December 2002, p. 315.
  11. William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxiii.
  12. Allen C. Guelzo, “Defending Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln and the Conkling Letter, 1863”, Civil War History, December 2002, p. 335.
  13. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 208.
  14. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 212.
  15. Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 263.
  16. Joshua F. Speed, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln and Notes of a Visit to California, p. 38.
  17. Paul M. Angle, “Lincoln’s Power with Words”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1981, pp. 13-14.
  18. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 90.
  19. James Hurt, “All the Living and the Dead: Lincoln’s Imagery”, American Literature, Volume 52, no. 3, November 1980, p. 353.
  20. Frank J. Williams, William D. Pederson and Vincent J. Marsala, editors, Abraham Lincoln: Sources and Style of Leadership, p. 71 (James A. Stevenson).
  21. Robert G. Ingersoll, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Volume XII, pp. 310-311.
  22. Theodore C. Blegen, Lincoln’s Imagery: A Study in Word Power, p. 8.
  23. Theodore C. Blegen, Lincoln’s Imagery: A Study in Word Power, p. 18.
  24. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 170.
  25. Paul M. Angle, “Lincoln’s Power with Words”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1981, p.14.
  26. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, pp. 265 (Noah Brooks).
  27. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 124-125.
  28. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 90.
  29. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks,pp. 264-265 (See also Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 127).
  30. Theodore C. Blegen, Lincoln’s Imagery: A Study in Word Power, p. 4.
  31. Charles W. Eliot, editor, Essays: English and American, p. 461 (James Russell Lowell, – Abraham Lincoln, 1864-1865″)
  32. Theodore C. Blegen, Lincoln’s Imagery: A Study in Word Power, pp. 4-5.
  33. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 154-155.
  34. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 265.
  35. Louis A. Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration: “A New Birth of Freedom”, p. 6.
  36. James G. Randall, Lincoln the President, Springfield to Gettysburg, Volume I, p. 49.
  37. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 266 (Noah Brooks).
  38. James G. Randall, Lincoln the President, Springfield to Gettysburg, Volume I, p. 49.
  39. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends , p. 79 (William Jayne, Springfield Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, February 12, 1907).
  40. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends), pp. 107-108 (James C. Conkling, Chicago Bar Association, January 12, 1881).
  41. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 5 (Letter from Robert Todd Lincoln to Isaac Markens, June 18, 1918).
  42. George Willis Cooke, editor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, His Life, Writings, and Philosophy, p. 154 (Remarks at the Funeral Services Held in Concord, April 19, 1865).
  43. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories (Charles S. Zane, Sunset Magazine, October 1912), p. 131.
  44. Lois Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln the Orator, p. 49.
  45. Theodore C. Blegen, Lincoln’s Imagery: A Study in Word Power, p. 7.
  46. Theodore C. Blegen, Lincoln’s Imagery: A Study in Word Power, p. 9.
  47. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 131 (Charles S. Zane, Sunset Magazine, October 1912).
  48. Elwin L. Page, Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire, p. 41.
  49. Ida Tarbell, Lincoln and His Ancestors, p. 365.
  50. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends (Charles S. Zane, Sunset Magazine, October 1912), p. 133.
  51. Charles M. Hubbard, Thomas R. Turner and Steven K. Rogstad, editors, The Many Faces of Lincoln (Waldo Braden, Kindly Let Me Be Silent, A Reluctant Lincoln, Lincoln Herald, Winter 1984), p. 304.
  52. Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends (John Langdon Kaine, Century Magazine, February 1913), p. 92.
  53. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 166.
  54. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 50-61.
  55. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 206.
  56. James M. McPherson, editor, “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth, p. 120 (Harold Holzer, “Avoid Saying Foolish Things: The Legacy of Lincoln’s Impromptu Oratory”).
  57. CWAL, Volume IV, pp. 242-243 (Remarks at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1861).
  58. Charles M. Hubbard, Thomas R. Turner and Steven K. Rogstad, editors, The Many Faces of Lincoln, (Waldo Braden, “‘Kindly Let Me Be Silent,’ A Reluctant Lincoln,” Lincoln Herald, Winter 1984, p. 302.
  59. James M. McPherson, editor, “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth, p. 77 (William E. Gienapp, “Abraham Lincoln and Presidential Leadership”).
  60. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 154-155 (Letter from Noah Brooks to George Witherle, December 10, 1864).
  61. Charles M. Hubbard, Thomas R. Turner and Steven K. Rogstad, editors, The Many Faces of Lincoln, (Waldo Braden, “‘Kindly Let Me Be Silent,’ A Reluctant Lincoln,” Lincoln Herald), Winter 1984, p. 302.
  62. Paul M. Angle, “Lincoln’s Power with Words”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1981, p. 27.
  63. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 281.