Have you seen the recent movie, Lincoln? I appreciated its portrayal of Lincoln’s gentle humanity and folksy wisdom which remained always apparent even during the enormous burdens of his presidency. My first real acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln occurred in early 1967 while Linda and I were living for a brief time in Maryland. On one of our first sojourns into Washington, D.C. to see the sights, Linda and I found ourselves in the Library of Congress one evening in February – probably the last stop of the day. The Library was deserted and very quiet as we made our way up to the mezzanine level. There, we split up to explore a bit. I will never forget my shock and amazement as I sauntered up to investigate an inauspicious looking wall with several items modestly displayed behind simple plastic protective shields.
I approached the first item which was at eye level, my nose literally inches from the display. To my amazement, I found myself staring directly at one of the most famous original documents in our country’s history, Lincoln’s handwritten Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863. Written in ink on Lincoln’s familiar embossed “Executive Mansion” stationery were the immortal words he spoke that afternoon at the public dedication of the battlefield cemetery. It was here that so many of the dead from the epic battle four months earlier were interred. What I was viewing that evening was not a facsimile copy, but the actual first-draft document completed in the Gettysburg home of David Wills. According to historians, it most likely is the document he held in his hands as he delivered the address. The second page was written in pencil, additional testimony to the belief that the address was composed on short notice and completed only the night before the event or even the next morning.
After a long while, I pried my eyes from this historical treasure which was so inauspiciously presented on the wall to look all around me. There was only one other person within view in all directions and that was a security guard laconically looking off into the distance, perhaps some fifty yards away. My eyes returned to the wall, and I stood there for a very long time reveling in my quiet good fortune; I fully appreciated the unique opportunity to experience such an exclusive and intimate acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln. Finally, I went to find Linda: “Linda, you have got to see this…..!” I will never forget that evening and that experience.
The Gettysburg Address deserves its reputation in literary circles as one of the finest, most eloquent expressions ever recorded. All I know is that I cannot personally come up with a better candidate. And this experience that evening at the Library of Congress was certainly the seminal event which inspired me to investigate Lincoln and the Civil War and to study that part of history in some depth.
As I soon discovered, Lincoln had an uncanny ability to express himself directly using an economy of words which radiated a simple eloquence. One sees it not only in his great speeches, but in the mundane day-to-day communiques to his staff, in his replies to any number of favor-seekers, and even in his humorous musings. Lincoln’s hand-written correspondence is immense and well-documented. One must sample these often quickly-crafted examples to fully appreciate that the Gettysburg Address was no “fluke.” I have never encountered anyone who communicated more beautifully in all respects. His direct memo style could serve as the perfect template for today’s busy executives. How a prairie boy from Illinois acquired that ability is hard to fathom. Lincoln himself estimated his entire formal schooling at one year, more or less. The Library of Congress has his early Kirkham’s book of grammar which he reputedly devoured and which apparently served as his entry point to eloquent expression. Is there any better example of hunger and determination fueling success than that of Lincoln?
Excerpt: Gettysburg Address
“….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not 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 honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…..”
Another fine example of Lincoln’s power of expression was his letter to Major General Joseph Hooker appointing him commander of the Army of the Potomac during very dark moments of the war – despite reservations:
“….I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. ….And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.
Yours very truly,
Alas, Hooker could not measure up to Lincoln’s entreaties for victories and was ultimately relieved of duty. He carried this letter with him long afterward, explaining, “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”
And, in a different vein, here is Lincoln’s response to eleven year old Grace Bedell who wrote Lincoln late in the presidential campaign of 1860 :
“…I have got four brothers and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you; you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.”
Lincoln replied on October 19, 1860 that he had never worn whiskers and asked, “Do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?” Within a few months, Lincoln sported the beard with which he is so identified.
Postscript: It has been many years now since such an up-close-and-personal experience as I had with Mr. Lincoln that evening was a possibility. Today, security and preservation demands require much more caution and a more formal, distant presentation of such priceless documents. I understand that perfectly well while mourning the reality that today’s youngsters will not be able to have the same serendipitous and intimate experience that I had. The good news is that these priceless documents will assuredly survive for many more generations given their improved care.
For anyone wishing to learn more about Lincoln, I can provide book suggestions depending on your specific interest.