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.