Lincoln's Manuscripts Reveal A Constant Reviser Abraham Lincoln changed the way leaders talk to the American people, says author Harold Holzer, editor of In Lincoln's Hand, a collection of the 16th president's manuscripts. Lincoln used simple language to speak to a broader audience, and the documents reflect his efforts to find the right words.
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Lincoln's Manuscripts Reveal A Constant Reviser

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Lincoln's Manuscripts Reveal A Constant Reviser

Lincoln's Manuscripts Reveal A Constant Reviser

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The dream of bipartisanship in Washington got another blast of cold water in its face this afternoon. Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire, has withdrawn as President Obama's nominee for commerce secretary.

SIEGEL: He cited irresolvable conflicts with the president's policies. We'll have the full story on this in a few minutes, but first, we pause to note that President Obama spent part of the day honoring a former Republican President.

BLOCK: Many people did, in fact, from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois and far beyond, Americans are marking Abraham Lincoln's birthday. President Lincoln was born on this date in 1809 on Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. President Obama spoke at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda this morning.

President BARACK OBAMA: I cannot claim to know as much about his life and works as many who are also speaking today. But I can say that I feel a special gratitude to this singular figure who, in so many ways, made my own story possible, and in so many ways, made America's story possible.

SIEGEL: He also made America's story lyrical and accessible. Abraham Lincoln was a regular soundbite machine with malice toward none, with charity for all. Government of the people, by the people and for the people. The other day, I visited the Library of Congress with Harold Holzer to talk about one of the most recent of the 31 books that Holzer has edited or written about Lincoln and his times.

This one is called, "In Lincoln's Hand." Writers, artists, past presidents were each assigned one of Lincoln's original manuscripts and asked to write a commentary about it. Harold Holzer says Lincoln changed the way our leaders talk to us.

Mr. HAROLD HOLZER (Writer, "In Lincoln's Hand"): He did reform and streamline the American political dialectic. He changed the vocabulary of political oratory, whereas, it had been bellicose, filled with classical allusions, biblical references, which he still did, but subtly.

SIEGEL: It's a more common language.

Mr. HOLZER: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: He's able to communicate with a broader audience.

Mr. HOLZER: Think of - statistical studies have been made of the great speeches - the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural, and it is astonishing how many words are of one syllable or two syllables. He wants to make the arguments cogent, compelling, sometimes amusing, sometimes moving. He wants his speeches to be understood.

SIEGEL: I've gone back to read a few famous speeches by some other great 19th century American orators. Daniel Webster could quote Livy, Homer and Virgil in a single speech. Like Henry Clay, he could compose a crescendo of exclamation marks that nearly shout off the page by the time he's done, but not Lincoln. Here's an actor reading the end of Lincoln's first inaugural address.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As President Abraham Lincoln) I am loathe to close. We are not enemies, but friends. 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 grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when, again, touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

SIEGEL: Harold Holzer showed me Lincoln's original text for that speech, which shows the influence of William Henry Seward, Lincoln's former rival for the nomination and then, his secretary of state.

Mr. HOLZER: I always find this document particularly fascinating, because it reflects Lincoln as a constant reviser and rewriter. He did show this to many readers along the way, read it aloud along the way, after having it printed in his hometown newspaper. And the manuscript that we're looking at now is actually a printed copy with his pasted in emendations, his crossed out words. And this is the way he took it to the Capitol to read on March 4th on a windy day. He put his cane down on these papers, on a rather makeshift table that was there in lieu of a podium.

SIEGEL: You mean, he had a mix of printed text and also handwritten text?

Mr. HOLZER: Yes, and some of it was front and back, I mean, it was a mess. But if you were here to see it, you'd notice two wonderful things at the end. He had a very bellicose ending scheduled for the speech. Shall it be peace or a sword? And he was convinced by Seward to substitute a more conciliatory and elegiac ending. But in crossing it out, it was almost as if he took a Sharpie, or whatever the equivalent. He made sure he would never say it. It's completely blacked out. It looks like an FBI-censored paper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: It's redacted.

Mr. HOLZER: It's totally redacted. And then to show that he was going to pause, I think, he drew a little pointed finger and hand. Lincoln the artist at work, as almost a paragraph indentation.

SIEGEL: Oh, that's his drawing in the midst of the text.

Mr. HOLZER: We think so.

SIEGEL: Maybe saying, skip down to here.

Mr. HOLZER: Yeah, skip down to here.

SIEGEL: This is where I'm going to pick up.

Mr. HOLZER: Or take a deep breath.

SIEGEL: These original manuscripts of Lincoln's 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 that John Sellers, the Library of Congress' expert archivist, talked about with us. In July 1863, Lincoln was furious with the hero of the Union Army victory at Gettysburg, General George Meade.

Doctor JOHN SELLERS (Expert Archivist, Library of Congress): Lincoln is tremendously disappointed that Meade did not go on and attack Lee when he was at the river, the Potomac River, which was swollen. 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.

Mr. HOLZER: This is Lincoln the manager at his best. He gets all of the frustration and anger out at General Meade, telling him how disappointed he is at his failure to follow up on his victory. Practically says, because of you the war will go on indefinitely. We could've ended it. And then, he folds it up, puts it in the envelope, and he writes, signed, but never sent. 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's got left.

SIEGEL: It's pretty impressive just to see the reproductions of Lincoln's words, as they were written in long hand and then reprinted and annotated. So, there's a whiff of idolatry in the honor we pay the originals, these artifacts, these splinters of the American cross. The allure of the real thing, whether it's the Gettysburg Address, the second inaugural, Lincoln's farewell to Springfield, Illinois, it may be a shade mystical, but it sure is real, even for John Sellers, for whom seeing Lincoln's manuscripts is all in a day's work.

Dr. SELLERS: When you handle them as often as I have, with such frequency, it becomes somewhat routine. 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.

Mr. HOLZER: Well, my attitude as an occasional visitor is that I get the tingle. For me to see the first inaugural address or the actual piece of paper on which he wrote the farewell address is the most thrilling thing in the world. And that's why I don't touch them.

Dr. SELLERS: When we put the original Gettysburg Address on display, the line was blocks long. When we substituted a modern facsimile so accurate that the naked eye of an untrained person could not tell the difference, there was no line. It was the original, the emotions of that that they wanted.

SIEGEL: There's something about looking at the authentic document.

Dr. SELLERS: That's correct.

Mr. HOLZER: Absolutely. The one that Lincoln touched, and 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.

SIEGEL: Historian Harold Holzer and Library of Congress archivist John Sellers. The Lincoln documents are on display at the Library of Congress. The documents are also reproduced in the book, "In Lincoln's Hand: His Original Manuscripts." And if you don't mind going third generation, there are reproductions of some of those reproductions at our Web site,

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