Abraham Lincoln and Literature

Abraham Lincoln and Literature


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(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1959)
Shakespeare can be a politician’s best friend. He certainly was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite author. In an 1860 biography of candidate Lincoln, journalist William Dean Howells wrote that Mr. Lincoln was “a diligent student of Shakespeare, to know whom is a liberal education.”1
Lincoln loved poetry – especially Shakespeare and Robert Burns. Mr. Lincoln’s longtime law partner, William H. Herndon, argued: “Beyond a limited acquaintance with Shakespeare, Byron, and Burns, Mr. Lincoln, comparatively speaking, had no knowledge of literature. He was familiar with the bible, and now and then evinced a fancy for some poem or short sketch to which his attention was called by some one else, or which he happened to run across in his cursory reading of books or newspapers. He never in his life sat down and read a book through, and yet he could readily quote any number of passages from the few volumes whose pages he had hastily scanned. In addition to his well-known love for the poem Immortality or Why should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud, he always had a great fondness for Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Last Leaf, the fourth stanza of which beginning with the verse, ‘The mossy marbles rest,’ I have often heard him repeat.”2
Robert Burns was Lincoln’s second favorite author. Lincoln scholars David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry wrote: “Born to poverty and obscurity, rising to heights of fame and popularity through long years of hard work, their lives present an interesting parallel. It is appropriate that Abe Lincoln should have found a kindred spirit in Bobby Burns, who spoke to his heart of the innermost yearnings, disappointments, and sorrows which both had experience through similar backgrounds.”3
Fellow attorney Milton Hay recalled that Mr. Lincoln “could quote Burns by the hour. I have been with him in that little office and heard him recite with the greatest admiration and zest, Burns’ ballads and quaint things. That was one of the sources of his wisdom and wit. As years passed on he did not quote Burns so much. He had then taken up Shakespeare and become deeply interested in him, and yet I fancy…that a great deal of Abraham Lincoln is bottomed on Robert Burns and William Shakespeare. Sometimes I think I can see the traces of both men in his writings. When you consider the bringing up of Lincoln, what a writer he was! The Anglo-Saxon mother in her own land, centuries ago. The poets undoubtedly had their influence on Lincoln’s style and probably on his mind.”4
Harkness and McMurtry wrote: “On the evening of a January 25, 1859, in Springfield the admirers of Robert Burns, with Lincoln prominent among them, celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the Scotsman’s birth with a banquet in concert Hall, at which a large number of ‘mysterious looking bottles’ were freely circulated, according to the newspaper account. The following lyrics of Burns were sung; John Anderson, My Jo; Green Grow the Rushes, O; A Heart-Warm Fond Adieu; and ‘Twas Even, the Dewy Fields Were Green.'”5 When President Lincoln was asked to toast Burns at the annual banquet of the capital’s Burns Club in January 1865, he replied: ” I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcending genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything which seems worth saying.”6
Mr. Lincoln frequently recited from memory, “Oh why should the spirit of mortal be proud!” A poem from William Knox written early in the 19th century. Mr. Lincoln, however, was long unaware of the poem’s author. Union officer James Grant Wilson recalled: “I called at the White House once with Isaac N. Arnold, a member of Congress from Chicago. In the course of conversation the President expressed his admiration for Dr. Holmes’s poem The Last Leaf, and said that his favorite hymns were Toplady’s Rock of Ages and the one beginning:

Father, whate’er of earthy bliss
Thy sovereign will denies.

“His favorite poem, he said, was one entitled Mortality, the author of which he had failed to discover, although he had tried to do so for twenty years. I was pleased to be able to inform him that it was written by William Knox, a young Scottish poet who died in 1825. He was greatly interested, and was still more gratified by the receipt, not long afterwards of a collection of Knox’s poems, containing his favorite, which had appeared in hundreds of newspapers throughout the country, and had been frequently attributed to him.”7
Music, rhythm and Scottish poetry were closely connected for Mr. Lincoln. Journalist Noah Brooks contended “Mr. Lincoln’s love of music was something passionate, but his tastes were simple and uncultivated, his choice being old airs, songs, and ballads, among which the plaintive Scot songs were best liked. Annie Laurie, Mary of Argyle, and especially Auld Robin Gray, never lost their charm for him; and all songs which had for their theme the rapid flight of time, decay, the recollections of early days, were sure to make a deep impression. The song which he liked best, above others, was one called Twenty Years Ago — a simple air, the words to which are supposed to be uttered by a man who revisits the play-ground of his youth. He greatly desired to find music for his favorite poem, ‘Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?’ and said once, when told that the newspapers had credited him with the authorship of the piece, ‘I should not care much for the reputation of having written that, but would be glad if I could compose music as fit to convey the sentiment as the words now do?'”;.8
Lincoln scholar Douglas Wilson wrote that “one of the truly remarkable things about Lincoln as president is the extent to which he resorted to literature. Perhaps no president turned to English poetry while in office with the frequency that Lincoln did. He continued to recite his old favorites, such as ‘O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?’ or Holmes’ ‘The Last Leaf,’ their melancholy and brooding concern for human mortality having been rendered even more apt by the somber circumstances of civil war And he read poets such as Thomas Hood to invoke the lighter side. But he repeatedly returned to Shakespeare, whom he had probably first read as a boy in William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution and for whom he had a lifelong fascination.”9
Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler observed: “In Lincoln’s day the Shakespearean fraternity was not limited to professors of English, actors, and poets, but embraced practically all formally or informally educated people and the majority of the more less self-educated. For example, two of Lincoln’s law partners, [Ward Hill] Lamon and [William] Herndon, were almost as familiar with and able to quote from Shakespeare as he was, and Lamon prided himself as a critic of the finer points in the performance of Shakespearean actors whom he, as something of a theatre habitue, rarely missed the opportunity of seeing.”10
According to aide John Hay, Lincoln “read Shakespeare more than all other writers together.” 11 Sometimes, he read Hay to sleep. In August 1863, Hay wrote: “Last night we went to the [Naval] Observatory…The Presdt, took a look at the moon and Arcturus. I went with him to the Soldier’s Home, and he read Shakespeare to me, the end of Henry the VI and the beginning of Richard III until my heavy eye-lids caught his considerable notice, and he sent me to bed.”12
Another aide, John G. Nicolay wrote: “The music of Lincoln’s thought was always in the minor key. His favorite poems, such as Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud? and Holmes’s Last Leaf specially emphasize this mood; they are distinctively poems of sadness. So also among Shakespeare’s play he found his chief fascination in Macbeth, full of the same undercurrent of the great problems of life and destiny which his own slight attempts at versification are in harmony'”.13 Journalist Noah Brooks recalled that President Lincoln rescued “waifs” of verse from the newspaper which he memorized. Brooks wrote that “it was noticeable that they were almost invariably referable to his tender sympathy with humanity its hopes and its sorrows. I recall one of these extracts, which he took out of his pocket one afternoon, as we were riding out to the Soldiers’ Home. It began:

A weaver sat at his loom,
Flinging his shuttle fast,
And a threat that should wear ’till the hour of doom
Was added at every cast.

Brooks continued: “The idea was that men weave in their own lives the garment which they must wear in the world to come. I do not know who wrote the verses; but the opening lines were fixed in my mind by their frequent repetition by the President, who seemed to be strongly impressed by them. During the evening, he murmured them to himself, once or twice, as if in a soliloquy.”14 Brooks noted that “Lincoln seldom quoted poetry in his letters or speeches, although in conversation he often made an allusion to something which he had read, always with the air of one who deprecated the imputation that he might be advertising his erudition.”15
Historian DouglasWilson wrote: “Upon moving into the White House, the Lincolns purchased a number of books, a list of which survives…There is abundant evidence that Lincoln sought out Shakespeare’s plays during the most trying hours of his presidency as sources of strength and consolation. Don E. Fehrenbacher relates this affinity for Shakespeare to Lincoln’s keen sense of his role and ultimate responsibility in the carnage of the Civil War. ‘To some indeterminable extent and in some intuitive way Lincoln seems to have assimilated the substance of the plays into his own experience and deepening sense of tragedy.'”16
Lincoln’s favorite play was Macbeth. “I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful,” President Lincoln wrote.17 On the boat ride back to Washington the week before he was murdered, President Lincoln entertained his shipmates by reciting from Shakespeare. A French visitor wrote: “On Sunday, April 9th, we were proceeding up the Potomac. That whole day the conversation turned on literary subjects. Mr. Lincoln read aloud to us for several hours passages taken from Shakespeare. Most of the passages he selected were from Shakespeare, especially Macbeth. The lines after the murder of Duncan, when the new king falls a prey to moral torment, were dramatically dwelt on. Now and then he paused to expatiate on how exact a picture Shakespeare here gives of a murderer’s mind when, the dark deed achieved, its perpetrator already envies his victim’s calm sleep..” 18
Repetition was the key to Mr. Lincoln’s enjoyment of literature . Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner recalled: “Impressed by its beauty or by something else, he read it a second time. As the friends who then surrounded him listened to his reading, they little thought how, in a few days, what was said of the murdered Duncan would be said of him. Nothing can touch him further. He is saved from the trials that were gathering about him. He had bought the good fight of Emancipation. He had borne the brunt for war with embattled hosts against him, and had conquered. He had made the name of Republic a triumph and a joy in foreign lands.”sup>19
Mr. Lincoln preferred the soliloquy of King Claudius over nephew Hamlet’s soliloquy: “The former is merely a philosophical reflection on the question of life and death, without actual reference to a future judgment; while the latter is a solemn acknowledgment of inevitable punishment hereafter, for the infraction of divine law. Let any reflect on the moral tone of the two soliloquies, and there can be no mistaking the force and grandeur of the lesson taught by one, and the merely speculative consideration in the other, of an alternative for the ills that flesh is heir to.” The lines which captured Lincoln’s attention were:

In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice;
And oft ’tis seen, the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.20

Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Rather the experience of these shakespearean heads of state, whose ambition had won them ‘the hollow crown’, spoke to the condition of a man whose restless desire for the highest office in the Union had delivered a fearful, bone-wearying duty. His particular fascination with Claudius’s soliloquy, beginning ‘O, my offence is rank’, in which the murderous king struggles honestly and despairingly with his conscience, and which Lincoln considered ‘one of the finest touches of nature in the world’, may well have had to do with his own (at times crushing) sense of responsibility, if not guilt, for the onset of the war.”21 Artist Francis B. Carpenter recalled a conversation in which President complained: “It always struck me as one of the finest touches of nature in the world. Then throwing himself into the very spirit of this scene, he took up the words:

“O my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t…22

Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: “It is the King’s confession of guilt and of his inner struggle to pray and repent and to give himself up to justice…it is the preeminent speech of the King which removes him from the category of mere villain and reveals him as a man, in whom the moral sense is not obliterated.” 23 According to Basler “Lincoln had known in many of his overweening contemporaries, as well as in himself perhaps, the power of personal ambition to drive men down paths of virtue as well as vice. It is…easy to account for his repeated reading of the historical plays King John, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, not merely for their portrayal of human character but also for their presentation of the horrors of civil war and the struggle for sovereignty in its ambiguous disguises as moral right and wrong.”24 Basler added: “Almost any play he happened to be reading could afford some application to his own condition at the particular moment…” 25
David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry wrote: “Lincoln’s favorite Shakespearean character was Falstaff. He was particularly fond of [James] Hackett’s performances in this role…So interested was the President in the lines of Falstaff that he took his two secretaries to Ford’s Theatre to witness the play Henry IV and to note the inflection of Hackett on the wrong word.” 26 President Lincoln saw Henry IV on March 13, 1863 when Falstaff was being played by Hackett. According to Lincoln scholar David Mearns, “Mr. Hackett was flattered to learn of this mark of magisterial favor and, upon his return to New York a few days later he sent the President a copy of his Notes and comments Upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare…”27
In August 1863, President Lincoln finally responded to Hackett: “For one of my age, I have seen very little of the drama. The first presentation of Falstaff I ever saw was yours here, last winter or spring. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is to say, as I truly can, I am very anxious to see it again. 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 Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offence is rank’ surpasses that commencing, ‘To be, or not to be.’ But pardon this small attempt at criticism.”28
Lincoln’s literary tastes raised a storm of literary criticism actor when Hackett published the text of the President’s letter. But President Lincoln himself criticized Hackett’s interpretation in Henry IV after he took both his secretaries to Ford’s Theater on December 15. John Hay wrote in his diary: “Hackett was most admirable. The President criticized H’s reading of a passage where Hackett said, ‘Mainly thrust at me’ the President thinking it should read ‘mainly thrust at me.’ ” 29 Two days earlier, Hackett had visited the White House. Hay wrote: “The conversation at first took a professional turn, the Tycoon showing a very intimate knowledge of those plays of Shakespeare where Falstaff figures. He was particularly anxious to know why one of the best scenes in the play, that where Falstaff and Prince Hal alternately assume the character of the King, is omitted in the representation. Hackett says it is admirable to read but ineffective on stage, that there is generally nothing sufficiently distinctive about the actor who plays Henry to make an imitation striking.”30
Mr. Lincoln was interested in the theater and actors as well as the plays they performed. Lincoln scholar David Mearns argued: “Throughout the War years, Mr. Lincoln was in constant touch with members of the theatrical profession. Miss Charlotte Cushman, who has been called ‘the most powerful actress America has produced,’ waited upon him in the early summer of 1861, and was treated, as she put it, with ‘great courtesy & marked respect.'”31
Congressman William D. Kelley recalled a late night visit to the White House where the conversation with a clergyman and actor John McDonough centered on Shakespeare’s plays. “Your last suggestion,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘carries with it greater weight than anything Mr. Hackett suggested, but the first no reason at all;’ and after reading another passage, he said, ‘This is not withheld, and where it passes current there can be no reason for withholding the other.’ But, as if feeling the impropriety of preferring the player to the parson, he turned to the chaplain and said: ‘From your calling it is probable you do not know that the acting plays which people crowd to hear are not always those planned by their reputed authors. Thus, take the stage edition of Richard III. It opens with a passage from Henry VI., after which come portions of Richard III., then another scene from Henry VI., and the finest soliloquy in the play, if we may judge from the many quotations it furnishes, and the frequency with which it is heard in amateur exhibitions, was never seen by Shakespeare, but was written, was it not, Mr. McDonough, after his death, by Colley Cibber?’

Having disposed, for the present, of questions relating to the stage editions of the plays he recurred to his standard copy, and, to the evident surprise of Mr. McDonough, read or repeated from memory extracts from several of the plays, some of which embraced a number of lines.
It must not be supposed that Mr. Lincoln’s poetical studies had been confined to his plays. He interspersed his remarks with extracts striking from their similarity to, or contrasting with, something of Shakespeare’s, from Byron, Rogers, Campbell, Moore, and other English poets.32

On an earlier occasion, Congressman Kelley noted that “Branching off from Shakespeare, Mr. Lincoln cited several passages from Byron, Rogers…and I think a short one from Shelley, always running a parallel between the passage he quoted and some passage or scene in Shakespeare.” At the end of the meeting, Mr. Lincoln said: “Gentlemen, I am deeply grateful to you for this visit. The heavy rain that has kept other visitors away has been a comfort to me. Since I became a candidate for the presidency I have not enjoyed two collective hours of conversation on literature until to-night, and I feel so refreshed, that if I could only hope to have the time, I would beg you to come soon again.”33
Poetry gives insight into Mr. Lincoln’s emotional life. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “If he rarely spoke of his inner feelings, he often expressed emotions through the poetry he admired.”34 Lincoln liked to relax by reading from Shakespeare or his favorite poets. Goodwin wrote of a boat trip President Lincoln made in 1862 to visit troops at Fredericksburg: “Lincoln relaxed at once, reading aloud from the works of a contemporary poet, Fitz-Greene Halleck, then considered ‘the American Byron.’ Lincoln chose that night to read Marco Bozzaris, a lengthy poem celebrating the death of a Greek hero in the war against Turkey. Lincoln was drawn to the poet’s vision of a lasting greatness, of deed that would resound throughout history. Because of such achievements in life, both Greece, in which ‘there is no prouder grave,’ and the mother ‘who gave thee birth,’ can speak ‘of thy doom without a sigh’:

For thou art Freedom’s now, and Fame’s;
One of the few, the immortal names,
That were not born to die.”35

Companions on such trips to the war front often recalled such performances by President Lincoln. General Egbert Viele wrote that when Secretary of the Treasury Chase, Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln visited him at Fort Monroe in May 1862, President Lincoln read “page after page of Browning and whole cantos of Byron.” 36 While visiting Fort Monroe, President Lincoln also used Shakespeare to ruminate on his dead son Willie. He recited from memory a section of Shakespeare’s King John:

And, father Cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again…37

As New York banker and Union officer LeGrand B. Cannon recalled their conversation that night – which came after earlier recitations and discussions of Hamlet and Macbeth: “I noticed that he was deeply move[d], his voice trembled, laying the Book on the table, he said, did you ever dream of a lost friend & feel that you were haveing [sic] a direct communion with that friend & yet a consciousness that it was not a reality. My reply was, yes I think all may have had such an experience. He repleyed [sic] so do I dream of my Boy Willey. He was utterly overcome. His great frame shook & Bowing down on the table he wept as only such a man in the breaking down of a great sorrow could weep.”38
Clearly, President Lincoln’s understanding of the emotions and rhythm of literature influenced his writing. Historian William E. Gienapp wrote: “Lincoln’s gift for language was marvelous, even poetic, so much so that he is the only American president other than Thomas Jefferson whose writings can be considered literature.” 39 David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry wrote that poet Robert “Burns probably came so close to some of Lincoln’s own early experiences that the Railsplitter felt the Plowman was speaking directly to him. The closing verse of A Winter Night, a poem we can imagine young Abe reading in the loneliness of an Indiana winter, expresses the kind of religion which appealed strongly to him:

But deep this truth impressed my mind
Thro’all his works abroad,
The heart benevolent and kind.
The most resembles God.

Harkness and McMurtry wrote: “Still another poem by Burns seems to sum up Lincoln’s character perfectly. In Second Epistle to J. Lapraik, Burns unconsciously expressed the personality of the Railsplitter:

The social, friendly, honest man,
Whate’er he be,
‘Tis he fulfils great Nature’s plan,
And none but he.40

More on the Author


  1. David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry, Lincoln’s Favorite Poets, p. 33.
  2. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 258.
  3. David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry, Lincoln’s Favorite Poets, p.
  4. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 47 (George Alfred Townsend, “Lincoln’s Near Friend,” Cincinnati Inquirer, August 26, 1883).
  5. David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry, Lincoln’s Favorite Poets, p. 10.
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 237 (Memoranda on Robert Burns, January 25, 1865).
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp. 423-424 (James Grant Wilson, Putnam’s Magazine, February-March, 1909).
  8. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 220. (From Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, Harper’s Monthly Magazine,, May 1865).
  9. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington, p. 10.
  10. Roy P. Basler, Touchstone for Greatness, p. 207.
  11. Michael Burlingame, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 137.
  12. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 75-76.
  13. John G. Nicolay, “Lincoln’s Literary Experiments,” Century, Volume 47, 1894, p. 831.
  14. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C. in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 261.
  15. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C. in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 260.
  16. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington, p. 10.
  17. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 392. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863).
  18. Marquis de Chambrun, Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War, p. 83-84.
  19. Charles Sumner, Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln: The Promises of the Declaration of Independence, p. 44.
  20. Osborn H. Oldroyd, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, p. 348.
  21. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 307.
  22. Francis Carpenter, Six Months at the White House,p. 50
  23. Roy P. Basler, Touchstone for Greatness, p. 223.
  24. Roy P. Basler, Touchstone for Greatness, p. 221.
  25. Roy P. Basler, Touchstone for Greatness, p. 223.
  26. David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry, Lincoln’s Favorite Poets, p. 31.
  27. David Chambers Mearns, Largely Lincoln, p. 126.
  28. CWAL, (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863), Volume VI, p. 393.
  29. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 128 (December 18, 1863).
  30. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 127-128 (December 13, 1863).
  31. David Chambers Mearns, Largely Lincoln, p. 120.
  32. Allen Thorndike Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 264-267.
  33. William D. Kelley, The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph.
  34. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 102.
  35. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 441.
  36. Egbert Viele, “A Trip with Lincoln, Chase and Stanton,” Scribners, pp. 813-814.
  37. David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry, Lincoln’s Favorite Poets, p. 24.
  38. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 679.
  39. James M. McPherson, “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth, p. 83.
  40. David James Harkness and R. Gerald McMurtry, Lincoln’s Favorite Poets, p. 18.