The Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Henry Ketcham

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Public Domain Books

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
16th President of the United States

Chapter XXXV. Literary Characteristics

The duties of the President of the United States include the writing of state papers that are considerable both in number and in volume. Many of the Presidents, from Washington down, have been men of great ability, and almost all of them have had sufficient academic training or intellectual environments in their early years. These state papers have frequently been such as to compare favorably with those of the ablest statesmen of Europe. With every new election of President the people wait in expectancy for the inaugural address and the messages to congress. These are naturally measured by the standard of what has preceded–not of all that has preceded, for the inferior ones are forgotten, but of the best. This is no light test for any man.

Lincoln’s schooling was so slight as to be almost nil. He did not grow up in a literary atmosphere. But in the matter of his official utterances he must be compared with the ablest geniuses and most cultured scholars that have preceded him, and not merely with his early associates. He is to be measured with Washington, the Adamses, Jefferson, and not with the denizens of Gentryville or New Salem.

Perhaps the best study of his keenness of literary criticism will be found in his correction of Seward’s letter of instruction to Charles Francis Adams, minister to England, under date of May 21, 1861. Seward was a brilliant scholar, a polished writer, a trained diplomatist. If any person were able to compose a satisfactory letter for the critical conditions of that period, he was the one American most likely to do it. He drafted the letter and submitted it to Lincoln for suggestions and corrections. The original manuscript with Lincoln’s interlineations, is still preserved, and facsimiles, or copies, are given in various larger volumes of Lincoln’s biography. This document is very instructive. In every case Lincoln’s suggestion is a marked improvement on the original. It shows that he had the better command of precise English. Lowell himself could not have improved his criticisms. It shows, too, that he had a firmer grasp of the subject. Had Seward’s paper gone without these corrections, it is almost certain that diplomatic relations with England would have been broken off. In literary matters Lincoln was plainly the master and Seward was the pupil.

The power which Lincoln possessed of fitting language to thought is marked. It made him the matchless story-teller, and gave sublimity to his graver addresses. His thoroughness and accuracy were a source of wonder and delight to scholars. He had a masterful grasp of great subjects. He was able to look at events from all sides, so as to appreciate how they would appear to different grades of intelligence, different classes of people, different sections of the country. More than once this many-sidedness of his mind saved the country from ruin. Wit and humor are usually joined with their opposite, pathos, and it is therefore not surprising that, being eminent in one, he should possess all three characteristics. In his conversation his humor predominated, in his public speeches pure reasoning often rose to pathos.

If the author were to select a few of his speeches or papers fitted to give the best example of his literary qualities, and at the same time present an evidence of the progress of his doctrine along political lines, he would name the following: The House-divided-against-itself speech, delivered at Springfield June 16, 1858. The underlying thought of this was that the battle between freedom and slavery was sure to be a fight to the finish.

Next is the Cooper Institute speech, Feb. 12, 1860. The argument in this is that, in the thought and intent of the founders of our government, the Union was permanent and paramount, while slavery was temporary and secondary.

Next was his inaugural, March 4, 1861. This warned the country against sectional war. It declared temperately but firmly, that he would perform the duties which his oath of office required of him, but he would not begin a war: if war came the aggressors must be those of the other side.

The next was the Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862, and January 1, 1863. This was not a general and complete emancipation of all slaves, it was primarily a military device, a war measure, freeing the slaves of those who were in actual and armed rebellion at the time. It was intended to weaken the belligerent powers of the rebels, and a notice of the plan was furnished more than three months in advance, giving ample time to all who wished to do so, to submit to the laws of their country and save that portion of their property that was invested in slaves.

Then came the second inaugural, March 4, 1865. There was in this little to discuss, for he had no new policy to proclaim, he was simply to continue the policy of the past four years, of which the country had shown its approval by reelecting him. The end of the war was almost in sight, it would soon he finished. But in this address there breathes an intangible spirit which gives it marvelous grandeur. Isaiah was a prophet who was also a statesman. Lincoln–we say it with reverence– was a statesman who was also a prophet. He had foresight. He had insight. He saw the hand of God shaping events, he saw the spirit of God in events. Such is his spiritual elevation of thought, such his tenderness of yearning, that there is no one but Isaiah to whom we may fittingly compare him, in the manly piety of his closing paragraph:

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ’The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have home 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.”

The study of these five speeches, or papers, will give the salient points of his political philosophy, and incidentally of his intellectual development. These are not enough to show the man Lincoln, but they do give a true idea of the great statesman. They show a symmetrical and wonderful growth. Great as was the House-divided- against-itself speech, there is yet a wide difference between that and the second inaugural: and the seven years intervening accomplished this growth of mind and of spirit only because they were years of great stress.

Outside of this list is the address at the dedication of Gettysburg cemetery, November 19, 1863. This was not intended for an oration. Edward Everett was the orator of the occasion. Lincoln’s part was to pronounce the formal words of dedication. It was a busy time–all times were busy with him, but this was unusually busy–and he wrote it on a sheet of foolscap paper in such odd moments as he could command. In form it is prose, but in effect it is a poem. Many of its sentences are rhythmical. The occasion lifted him into a higher realm of thought. The hearers were impressed by his unusual gravity and solemnity of manner quite as much, perhaps, as by the words themselves. They were awed, many were moved to tears. The speech is given in full:


“Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But 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.”

The effect of this speech was not immediate. Colonel Lamon was on the platform when it was delivered and he says very decidedly that Everett, Seward, himself, and Lincoln were all of opinion that the speech was a failure. He adds: “I state it as a fact, and without fear of contradiction, that this famous Gettysburg speech was not regarded by the audience to whom it was addressed, or by the press or people of the United States, as a production of extraordinary merit, nor was it commented on as such until after the death of the author.”

A search through the files of the leading New York dailies for several days immediately following the date of the speech, seems to confirm Lamon’s remark–all except the last clause above quoted. These papers give editorial praise to the oration of Everett, they comment favorably on a speech by Beecher (who had just returned from England), but they make no mention of Lincoln’s speech. It is true that a day or two later Everett wrote him a letter of congratulation upon his success. But this may have been merely generous courtesy,–as much as to say, “Don’t feel badly over it, it was a much better speech than you think!” Or, on the other hand, it may have been the result of his sober second thought, the speech had time to soak in.

But the silence of the great daily papers confirms Lamon up to a certain point. At the very first the speech was not appreciated. But after a few days the public awoke to the fact that Lincoln’s “few remarks” were immeasurably superior to Everett’s brilliant and learned oration. The author distinctly remembers that it was compared to the oration of Pericles in memory of the Athenian dead; that it was currently said that there had been no memorial oration from that date to Lincoln’s speech of equal power. This comparison with Pericles is certainly high praise, but is it not true? The two orations are very different: Lincoln’s was less than three hundred words long, that of Pericles near three thousand. Pericles gloried in war, Lincoln mourned over the necessity of war and yearned after peace. But both orators alike appreciated the glory of sacrifice for one’s country. And it is safe to predict that this Gettysburg address, brief, hastily prepared, underestimated by its author, will last as long as the republic shall last, as long as English speech shall endure.


Dedication  •  Preface  •  Chapter I. The Wild West  •  Chapter II. The Lincoln Family  •  Chapter III. Early Years  •  Chapter IV. In Indiana  •  Chapter V. Second Journey to New Orleans  •  Chapter VI. Desultory Employments  •  Chapter VII. Entering Politics  •  Chapter VIII. Entering the Law  •  Chapter IX. On the Circuit  •  Chapter X. Social Life and Marriage  •  Chapter XI. The Encroachments of Slavery  •  Chapter XII. The Awakening of the Lion  •  Chapter XIII. Two Things That Lincoln Missed  •  Chapter XIV. The Birth of the Republican Party  •  Chapter XV. The Battle of the Giants  •  Chapter XVI. Growing Audacity of the Slave Power  •  Chapter XVII. The Backwoodsman at the Center of Eastern Culture  •  Chapter XVIII. The Nomination of 1860  •  Chapter XIX. The Election  •  Chapter XX. Four Long Months  •  Chapter XXI. Journey to Washington  •  Chapter XXII. The Inauguration  •  Chapter XXIII. Lincoln His Own President  •  Chapter XXIV. Fort Sumter  •  Chapter XXV. The Outburst of Patriotism  •  Chapter XXVI. The War Here to Stay  •  Chapter XXVII. The Darkest Hour of the War  •  Chapter XXVIII. Lincoln and Fremont  •  Chapter XXIX. Lincoln and McClellan  •  Chapter XXX. Lincoln and Greeley  •  Chapter XXXI. Emancipation  •  Chapter XXXII. Discouragements  •  Chapter XXXIII. New Hopes  •  Chapter XXXIV. Lincoln and Grant  •  Chapter XXXV. Literary Characteristics  •  Chapter XXXVI. Second Election  •  Chapter XXXVII. Close of the War  •  Chapter XXXVIII. Assassination  •  Chapter XXXIX. A Nation’s Sorrow  •  Chapter XL. The Measure of a Man  •  Chapter XLI. Testimonies