Category Archives: Lincoln Speaks Online Exhibition: Sections

About the Exhibition

“Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation,” co-curated by The Gilder Lehrman Institute and The Morgan Library and Museum, presents a fascinating and varied look at how Abraham Lincoln’s language and words changed history. Abraham Lincoln delighted in the rich possibilities of language. Throughout his life, he strove to honor the written and spoken word. Largely self-taught, he achieved a literary command that helped him to win the presidency, to define in memorable prose the purposes that had shaped the nation, and to lead the nation through a Civil War. Richard Carwardine, Rhodes Professor of American history and President, Corpus Christi College, Oxford University served as historical adviser to the exhibition. The exhibition was co-curated by Sandra Trenholm of the Gilder Lehrman Collection and Declan Kiley of the Morgan Museum and Library.

The items in the exhibition are drawn from The Gilder Lehrman Collection and The Morgan Library Collection, with additional loans from The Shapell Manuscript Foundation, Harvard College Library, The Library of Congress, The Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation and the New York Historical Society.

Section VII: Lincoln Among Friends

Over the course of his career, Lincoln made many political and legal acquaintances, with some of whom he established close working relationships. His engaging conversation, capacious memory, and skillful storytelling made him entertaining company: more often than not he was the center of a crowd. As a private and self-reliant man, however, he had few intimate friends. Although his family provided emotional sustenance, his relations with his father were strained, his marriage to Mary was not always easy, and there was little intimacy with his eldest son, Robert.

Lincoln’s surviving writings rarely allow us to see into his soul. Even so, his private correspondence reveals some personal exchanges. In the midst of the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln paused to write a letter of consolation to a friend of his son Robert, George C. Latham, who had been denied admission to Harvard. Lincoln wrote this letter of encouragement, declaring, “It is a certain truth that you can enter and graduate in Harvard University; and having made the attempt, you must succeed in it. ‘Must’ is the word.” Lincoln’s words of encouragement to a young student offer an insight into his approach to making the most of his own life.

Section VIII: Lincoln In the Eyes of the World

Lincoln’s horizons extended across the nineteenth-century world. Deeming the Union the “last, best hope of earth,” he defined the Civil War as more than an American crisis. The struggle presented “to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic . . . can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.” Equally, the fight to end American slavery was part of a universal struggle between liberty and tyranny, social progress and lethargy.

Lincoln’s public and private words encouraged progressives abroad to cast him as the embodiment of democratic freedom and modernity. His cruel death prompted a worldwide outpouring of grief. In Europe, grown men wept in the streets. The U.S. State Department was overwhelmed by a blizzard of tributes from every continent.

Foreign biographies suggest the extent of Lincoln’s global reach. By 1900, he had become the subject of mostly admiring works published in German, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Danish, Welsh, Hebrew, Russian, Norwegian, Finnish, Turkish, Swedish, and Japanese. Over the next quarter century, the list grew to include titles in Polish, Chinese, Czech, Arabic, Hungarian, Persian, Slovak, Armenian, and Korean. Variously seen as emancipator, nation builder, defender of representative government, and self-made man, Lincoln was a worldwide hero.

Section IX: A Man for All Time

Lincoln’s words have lived on, thanks to their iteration by others as well as through their own intrinsic power. American political leaders, poets, playwrights, novelists, literary critics, theologians, journalists, and others have been inspired, challenged, and sometimes affronted by his sentiments.

Lincoln has also spoken—and continues to speak—to people throughout the world. Karl Marx judged him “the single-minded son of the working class.” Tomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, drew strength as “the Lincoln of Central Europe.” Racially mixed, republican Abraham Lincoln brigades fought in the Spanish Civil War. Mohandas Gandhi recognized in Lincoln a model of nonviolence. In Britain during the Second World War, his words stiffened resolve, while in Germany during the subsequent Cold War, West Berliners deployed Lincoln as a symbol of anticommunism and self-determination. At the same time, Ghanaians used him to legitimize liberation from British colonial rule and then to justify the new state’s use of massive force against internal enemies. Recently Desmond Tutu accepted the Lincoln Leadership Prize for his role in national reconciliation in South Africa. “Now he belongs to the ages,” whispered the grieving secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, when Lincoln breathed his last. His words could scarcely have been more prescient.

Section I: Lincoln the Reader

The writings that gave Lincoln greatest pleasure also gave direction to his native talent. He read, reread, and absorbed the poetic language of the King James translation of the Bible. Lincoln revered Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for their imagery, metrical rhythms, emotional range, and psychological perception. From memory he could recite long passages from the Bard’s tragedies and histories. He appreciated the political oratory of his Whig hero Henry Clay, studied Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and other legal texts, and mastered books of Euclidean logic. Together these influences confirmed his preference for words that appealed to reason, not mere emotion. In his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Mortality”—beginning and ending, “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”—Lincoln saw the power of rhythmic repetition. And in the comic thrusts of contemporary humorists and satirists, such as Artemus Ward and David Ross Locke, he saw skill bordering on genius. All in all, Lincoln had no appetite for grandiloquence and pretension. Rather, he admired writing that was clear and cogent, and that, when spoken, was pleasing to the ear.

Section II: The Politician

Lincoln’s public career coincided with the maturing of a democratic, two-party system marked by boisterous campaigning and torrents of rhetoric. Whether working for his own election or that of others, he showed an aptitude for the new politics and connected easily with the public. In the main he spoke extemporaneously, but he prepared notes for his most important speeches. His faith in people’s intelligence and moral sense led him naturally to use logic and reason as means of persuasion. He despised the florid rhetoric associated with Daniel Webster and other celebrated Whig orators of the day, preferring a dry statement of his main point in clear, simple language. His great gift for colorful colloquialism and storytelling cemented his appeal as an unaffected man of the people. Few could match him for the humorous tales that he used as parable, explanation, and analogy. When the grave issue of slavery’s expansion shook the political system during the 1850s, however, he reined in his humor and surprised many with his ethical seriousness. A colleague remarked that, when thoroughly roused, Lincoln “would come out with an earnestness of conviction, a power of argument, a wealth of illustration, that I have never seen surpassed.”

Section III: National Leader

One of Lincoln’s greatest achievements was his articulation of a rationale for the Civil War and its sacrifices, shaped to inspire loyal Unionists. His leadership rested far less on coercion than on his faith in what he described as “the power of the right word from the right man to develop the latent fire and enthusiasm of the masses.”

As president, he had only limited time for preparing substantial speeches. He spoke in public nearly a hundred times, but his remarks were usually modest and often unscripted. They included short addresses to troops, impromptu responses to well-wishers who came to “serenade” him, and statements to visiting delegations of, among others, clergymen, border-state representatives, and free blacks. Exceptions to this general rule included the two most celebrated speeches of his presidency, the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. Significantly, they were his pithiest.

For these reasons Lincoln relied less on the spoken than the written word. Most effective of all were his carefully crafted and widely circulated public letters. He skillfully designed each to rally support on an issue crucial to the prosecution of the war: emancipation and racial issues, conscription, military arrests, and the suspension of habeas corpus.

Section IV: The Emancipator

Lincoln felt strongly the injustice of slavery. “I am naturally anti-slavery,” he wrote in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Yet he was careful never to describe it as a sin: Southerners were the victims of their particular circumstances. During the first year of the Civil War, to avoid scaring slave-owning loyalists in Kentucky and other border states, he had to be especially cautious when addressing slavery’s future.

Federal setbacks during the first half of 1862 led Lincoln to take the radical step he called indispensable to national salvation. In the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 22 September, he pointedly used dry, legalistic language to declare—as commander in chief, guided by the Constitution—that on 1 January 1863, those held as slaves in still rebellious areas “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Lincoln thereafter crafted more refined language to place emancipation within the ethical rationale for the war. African Americans were implicit in his commitment at Gettysburg to “a new birth of freedom.” When, in 1865, states began to ratify the emancipation amendment to the Constitution, he lauded this “King’s cure for all the evils.”

Section V: Healing a Nation

Lincoln was a kindly man, who by his own estimate probably had “too little” of the feeling of personal resentment —“a man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels,” he reflected. He saw the irony that, as someone who did not bear a grudge, he had found himself at the center of such a profound conflict.

Lincoln’s lifelong belief in America’s national destiny and common purpose, however, led him to sanction an intensification of the war after the summer of 1862. It could no longer be fought, he said, “with elder stalk squirts charged with rosewater.” His emancipation policy marked the end of conciliation, led to a developing assault on the South’s people and economy, and prompted deep hostility in parts of the North.

As the end of this “hard war” approached, Lincoln sought to heal the wounds. At his second inauguration, with the Confederacy speedily crumbling, he called for a magnanimous postwar reconciliation. The crowd had expected the language of triumph; instead, he chose not to blame, spoke inclusively, emphasized the shared experience of—and God’s judgment on—both sides in the conflict, and urged no vengeance toward the South. Of all Lincoln’s words, these are the most transformative.

Section VI: The Commander in Chief

Lincoln was not a natural warrior. He had to learn about military command. As a lawyer, he knew how to draft lucid and cogent directions. As commander in chief, however, he was uncompromisingly clear in laying out strategy. When the security of Washington, DC, was threatened, Lincoln erupted at the bureaucratic delay and angrily ordered General Russell to move troops to Fort Monroe, 180 miles from the capital, exhorting: “I want you to cut the Knots, and send them right along.”

Lincoln’s words circulated in the military camps through publications that addressed the troops. He spoke to many volunteers individually. They admired the common touch of a president who lacked airs and graces, remained approachable, and mixed kindliness with good humor, jokes, and easy familiarity.