Lincoln's Manuscripts Reveal A Constant Reviser

Alex Gardner made this photograph of President Lincoln 11 days before he delivered his Gettysburg Address. i i

hide captionAlex Gardner made this photograph of President Lincoln 11 days before he delivered his Gettysburg Address.

Bettman/Corbis
Alex Gardner made this photograph of President Lincoln 11 days before he delivered his Gettysburg Address.

Alex Gardner made this photograph of President Lincoln 11 days before he delivered his Gettysburg Address.

Bettman/Corbis
The end of Lincoln's first inaugural speech i i

hide captionThe end of President Lincoln's first inaugural speech, delivered March 4, 1861. After the text for his speech was printed in his hometown paper, Lincoln revised it for delivery.

From 'In Lincoln's Hand'/Bantam Books. Courtesy of The Library of Congress
The end of Lincoln's first inaugural speech

The end of President Lincoln's first inaugural speech, delivered March 4, 1861. After the text for his speech was printed in his hometown paper, Lincoln revised it for delivery.

From 'In Lincoln's Hand'/Bantam Books. Courtesy of The Library of Congress
Lincoln's Farewell to Springfield address i i

hide captionLincoln delivered his famous "Farewell to Springfield" address on Feb. 11, 1861. In it, he bade farewell to his hometown in Illinois. When he finished it, he wrote it out — and improved it — for journalists.

From 'In Lincoln's Hand'/Bantam Books. Courtesy of The Library of Congress
Lincoln's Farewell to Springfield address

Lincoln delivered his famous "Farewell to Springfield" address on Feb. 11, 1861. In it, he bade farewell to his hometown in Illinois. When he finished it, he wrote it out — and improved it — for journalists.

From 'In Lincoln's Hand'/Bantam Books. Courtesy of The Library of Congress
Lincoln's Letter to General Meade i i

hide captionThe first page of a letter Lincoln wrote to Gen. George Meade expressing disappointment that he didn't go on and attack Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Potomac River after Gettysburg. But the letter was so condemning that he did not send it — it has a note that says, "never sent or signed."

From 'In Lincoln's Hand'/Bantam Books. Courtesy of The Library of Congress
Lincoln's Letter to General Meade

The first page of a letter Lincoln wrote to Gen. George Meade expressing disappointment that he didn't go on and attack Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Potomac River after Gettysburg. But the letter was so condemning that he did not send it — it has a note that says, "never sent or signed."

From 'In Lincoln's Hand'/Bantam Books. Courtesy of The Library of Congress

The legacy of Abraham Lincoln is measured in both deeds and words.

The 16th president was a regular sound-bite machine, uttering such memorable words as "with malice toward none and charity for all," and "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

When Lincoln was in office, he changed the way leaders talk to the American people, says author Harold Holzer, who has written or edited 31 books about Lincoln.

"He did reform and streamline the American political dialectic," Holzer tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "He changed the vocabulary of political oratory — whereas it had been bellicose, filled with classical allusions, biblical references, which he still did, but subtly."

In one of Holzer's most recent books, In Lincoln's Hand, a panel of writers, artists and past presidents were each assigned one of Lincoln's original manuscripts and asked to write a commentary on it. The manuscripts show how Lincoln used common language to reach a broader audience.

"Statistical studies have been made of the great speeches — the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural — and it is astonishing how many words are one syllable or two syllables," Holzer says. "He wants to make the arguments cogent, compelling, sometimes amusing, sometimes moving. He wants his speeches to be understood."

'Reviser And Rewriter'

While another great 19th century American orator, Daniel Webster, might quote Livy, Homer and Virgil in a single speech, that wasn't Lincoln's style.

"We are not enemies, but friends," Lincoln said in the closing passage of his first inaugural speech in 1861. "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot's grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when touched again, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Lincoln's original text for the speech reveals the influence of William Henry Seward, Lincoln's former rival for the nomination and his secretary of state. Originally, Lincoln was going to end the speech with the bellicose statement, "Shall it be peace or sword." But Seward convinced Lincoln to substitute a more conciliatory and elegiac ending, Holzer says.

Holzer says he finds the manuscript fascinating because it "reflects Lincoln as a constant reviser and rewriter."

According to Holzer, Lincoln would read a speech out loud after it was printed in his hometown newspaper. And then he would amend it, crossing out and adding words.

"And this is the way he took it to the Capitol to read on March 4, on a windy day," Holzer says. "He put his cane down on these papers on a rather makeshift table that was there in lieu of a podium."

Lincoln read from a messy mix of printed text and handwritten text. And the original ending he had written was heavily crossed out.

"It was almost as if he took a Sharpie or what was the equivalent," Holzer says. "He made sure he would never say it. It's completely blacked out. It looks like a FBI-censored paper."

A Peek Into Lincoln's Mind

Lincoln's original manuscripts at the Library of Congress yield some insight into what the president was thinking, in addition to what he was saying. And there's no better example of that than the letter Lincoln wrote to Gen. George Meade in July 1863, when he was furious with the hero of the Union Army victory at Gettysburg.

"Lincoln is tremendously disappointed that Meade did not go on and attack [Gen. Robert E.] Lee when he was at the river, the Potomac River, which was swollen," says John Sellers, the Library of Congress' expert archivist. "And he is so distraught that he writes a letter that is so condemning that he did not actually send it. He knew that Meade would resign."

"This is Lincoln the manager at his best," says Holzer. "He gets all of the frustration and anger out at Gen. Meade, telling him how disappointed he is ... [He] practically says, 'Because of you the war will go on indefinitely. We could have ended it.' And then, he folds it up, puts it in an envelope ... He does not send it to Meade. He gets all of his anguish out on paper and then thinks better of it, because Meade is all he has left."

It's pretty impressive just to see the reproductions of Lincoln's words, as they were written in longhand, and then reprinted and annotated. The allure of the real thing — whether it's the Gettysburg Address, the second inaugural address or the farewell speech to Springfield — may be a shade mystical, but it sure is real, even for Sellers.

"When you handle them as often as I have, with such frequency, it becomes somewhat routine," Sellers says. "But you're always impressed by the worth of it, by the words themselves and by the man who did it. You can't lose sight of that."

As an occasional visitor, Holzer says he gets "the tingle." "For me to see the actual piece of paper on which he wrote the farewell address is the most thrilling thing in the world. That's why I don't touch them."

Sellers says that when the Library of Congress put the original Gettysburg Address on display, the line was blocks long. But when they submitted a "modern facsimile so accurate that the naked eye of an untrained person could not tell the difference," Sellers says, there was no line. People wanted to see the authentic document, the one that Lincoln touched.

"It gives one hope that authenticity will still prevail in a world of simulacrum, and there is hope for museums and libraries around the country," Holzer says.

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