There are a few people from history I’d like to have met. Abraham Lincoln is one I would have enjoyed visiting with. It would have been a privilege to know him as a person, to ask him questions, to hear his thoughtful, insightful answers, to hear him laugh, to see him at work in one of our nation’s stormiest times.
I’m convinced I would have admired him up close and personal even more than I do from a hundred and fifty years away or so. So on this year’s commemoration of his birthday, a few thoughts from and about him. Please feel free to add notes, quips and links in the comments.
“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
“I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families–second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks…. My father … removed from Kentucky to … Indiana, in my eighth year…. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up…. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher … but that was all.”
He learned by sight, scent, and hearing. He heard all that was said, and talked over and over the questions heard; wore them slick, greasy, and threadbare. He went to political and other speeches and gatherings; he would hear all sides and opinions, talk them over and discuss them, agreeing or disagreeing. Abe, as I said before, was originally a Democrat after the order of Jackson, so was his father, so we all were. He preached, made speeches, read for us, explained to us, etc. … Abe was a cheerful boy, a witty boy, was humorous always; sometimes would get sad, not very often. … He would frequently make political and other speeches to the boys; he was calm, logical, and clear always. He attended trials, went to court always, read the Revised Statutes of Indiana, dated 1827, heard law speeches, and listened to law trials, etc. He was always reading, scribbling, writing, ciphering, writing poetry, and the like. … In Gentryville, about one mile west of Thomas Lincoln’s farm, Lincoln would go and tell his jokes and stories, and was so odd, original, humorous, and witty, that all the people in town would gather around him. He would keep them there till midnight. Abe was a good talker, a good reader, and was a kind of newsboy.
(remarks attributed to Abraham Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks) in William M. Thayer, “Life of Lincoln” ch. 13 “Sundry Incidents”
Lincoln Wrote Powerful Public Letters
Another thing that attracted my attention was the way Lincoln got into the business of writing public letters, something that no president had ever done. In the summer of 1862 things were really very, very bad for the Union cause. Even his friends were saying, “We’re not doing anything. We’re just getting beat, and taking it on the chin.” He wanted to announce that he was going to issue a proclamation of emancipation, but his cabinet persuaded him that at such a time it would appear an act of desperation. So he was looking for some way to answer his many critics.
In August, he wrote out a brief defense of his views and read it to a friend, asking “What would you think if I published something like this?” While they were pondering the propriety of such a thing, Horace Greeley published a prominent editorial, which was long, noisy, impolite, accusatory. And Lincoln has this wonderful, quiet, firm, “I would save the Union” letter already written, so he just publishes it in a Washington newspaper as a response to Greeley. In spite of being criticized for being unprecedented, it had a good effect. Lincoln thereby discovered that he had a way to reach the public directly. He knew he needed to shape and prepare public opinion before he could do more about emancipation, and the Greeley letter went a long way towards doing just that.
That’s the first letter, and in the pivotal year 1863, there are three more important public letters: the Erastus Corning letter, the letter to Ohio Democratic State Convention (Matthew Birchard) and the James Conkling letter. It turns out that, like the Greeley letter, the Corning letter was what I call “pre-writing,” that is written from notes he had already made as ideas occurred to him and put away in a drawer in his desk. When he got the petition sent by Corning, he decided that this was the right occasion for defending his policies involving the curtailment of civil liberties, which he was able to do quite readily with the material he had stored away in the drawer.
Lincoln Composed in Fragments
William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, tells us that Lincoln habitually worked this way, making notes on scraps of paper and carrying them around in his hat. When he got ready to write the House Divided speech, for example, Herndon says he simply laid out all those pieces of paper on his desk and numbered them and then he wrote out the speech.
If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.