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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln the Writer

Lincoln's speeches are celebrated as some of the most poetic and influential works of American literature. And yet, according to Lincoln's first autobiography, there was little in Lincoln's humble education to prepare him for such achievement:

"...when I came of age I did not know much — Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three, but that was all — I have not been to school since — The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity...."

From "Abraham Lincoln to Jesse W. Fell, December 20, 1859," transcription of autobiographical sketch.

The collection contains a variety of writings that demonstrate Lincoln's skill with language and afford an opportunity to better understand this skill. Begin an analysis by comparing Lincoln's letters. In countless letters dealing with matters of the state, Lincoln employs a formal style, while in personal letters his style is more casual. Search on Mary Todd Lincoln for correspondence to his wife, such as a letter written on March 4, 1860 during a speaking tour:

"This is Sunday morning; and according to Bob's orders, I am to go to church once to-day — Tomorrow I bid farewell to the boys, go to Hartford, Conn. and speak there in the evening; Tuesday at Menden, and Wednesday at New-Haven — and Thursday at Woonsocket, R. I — Then I start home, and think I will not stop — I may be delayed in New-York City an hour or two — I have been unable to escape this toil — If I had foreseen it I think I would not have come East at all."

From "Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, March 4, 1860 (Report from Exeter, New Hampshire)."

  • In what ways are Lincoln's letters to his wife different from his professional letters?
  • How does Lincoln use language, grammar, and punctuation to achieve different effects?
  • How would you characterize the style and tone of Lincoln's autobiographies?
  • What do you think Lincoln's goals were in writing an autobiography and what literary techniques did he use to achieve those goals?

Despite his humble education, Lincoln was able to teach himself law, and in 1836 he obtained a law-license, opening his own practice the following year. Search on the word case and a year in which Lincoln practiced law, for example, 1839 case, or 1851 case for examples of Lincoln's legal writing, such as an affidavit for the case of Hill vs. Bennett.

  • What were Lincoln's goals in writing legal documents such as affidavits? How are these goals different from the goals of letter writing?
  • What words would you use to describe Lincoln's legal writing?
  • Can you identify passages where Lincoln used a legal style of writing in documents that he wrote as a Senator and President, such as a Bill to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C., his first inaugural address, or his response to Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune?
  • What other writing styles does Lincoln use in such compositions? What is the role of each style that he uses?

Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, said that Lincoln referenced the writings of Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, as well as the Constitution, in drafting his first inaugural address. Lincoln was also fond of Shakespeare. He would often read and re-read Shakespeare's plays as a diversion from presidential responsibilities and liked to read speeches aloud to impromptu audiences. In a letter to James H. Hackett, a prominent actor, Lincoln expresses his interest in Shakespeare:

"Some of Shakspeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing "Oh my offense is rank" surpasses that commencing, "To be or not to be." But pardon this small attempt at criticism."

From "Abraham Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863 (Shakespeare)."

  • What does Lincoln's letter to Hackett suggest about why he likes Shakespeare?
  • Do you find evidence of Lincoln's admiration for Shakespeare in any of his writing? Can you find evidence of his admiration for Clay, Jackson, or Webster?
  • If so, what can you tell from this evidence about why Lincoln appreciated each writer? Was it his use of language or his ideas?
  • What does such evidence suggest about what Lincoln hoped to achieve with his own writing?
  • Is there evidence of any other influences on Lincoln's writing?
  • Lincoln often wrote memoranda to clarify his thoughts. What does this suggest about the role of writing in Lincoln's life and presidency?