Category Archives: Lincoln’s Writings

The historical keynote of the war

Charles Francis Adams was one of many Americans who stood in front of the Capitol 150 years ago to hear Lincoln deliver his second inaugural address.  “That railsplitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day,” Adams wrote a few days later.  “Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour.”  He believed the speech would be “for all time the historical keynote of this war.”

Lincoln himself expected his speech to “wear as well as —perhaps better than—any thing I have produced,” even though it was “not immediately popular.”

Here are a few links to help you commemorate the sesquicentennial of what historian Ronald C. White has called Lincoln’s greatest speech:

Library of Congress

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Commemorating Lincoln’s second inaugural in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol will host a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s second inaugural on March 4.  Stephen Lang will deliver the same speech Lincoln wrote for his 1865 swearing-in, and the event will also feature remarks from Congressman Ray LaHood, historian Edna Greene Medford, and prominent Lincoln authority Frank J. Williams.

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Two new Lincoln documents discovered

Researchers working on the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project have found two new Lincoln letters at the University of Alabama:

The first is a letter to Lincoln’s former secretary of war, Simon Cameron, concerning treason cases against prominent Baltimore officials in 1863. The second concerns the use of several thousand Enfield muskets captured from British ships trying to run blockades into the Confederacy in 1862.

“It is amazing that in the 21st century, new Lincoln materials are still being found,” Professor Charles Summersell of the University of Illinois Springfield said in a statement. “Once again, the relentlessly diligent researchers for the Invaluable Papers of Abraham Lincoln have discovered previously unknown material on our sixteenth president.”

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Lincoln on the Declaration of Independence

From Lincoln’s remarks delivered at Independence Hall on Feb. 22, 1861:

I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here in the place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live.…[A]ll the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world from this hall in which we stand.  I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence—I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence.  I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.  It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.  This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

 

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Lincoln opposes an appointment

On this date in 1849, Lincoln wrote to Secretary of the Navy William B. Preston to complain about an impending political appointment:

Last night I received letters from different persons at Washington assuring me it was not improbable that Justin Butterfield, of Chicago, Ills, would be appointed Commissioner of the Genl. Land-Office.…Mr. Butterfield is my friend, is well qualified, and, I suppose, would be faithful in the office. So far, good. But now for the objections. In 1840 we fought a fierce and laborious battle in Illinois, many of us spending almost the entire year in the contest. The general victory came, and with it, the appointment of a set of drones, including this same Butterfield, who had never spent a dollar or lifted a finger in the fight. The place he got was that of District Attorney. The defection of Tyler came, and then B. played off and on, and kept the office till after Polk’s election. Again, winter and spring before the last, when you and I were almost sweating blood to have Genl. Taylor nominated, this same man was ridiculing the idea, and going for Mr. Clay; and when Gen: T. was nominated, if he went out of the city of Chicago to aid in his election, it is more than I ever heard, or believe. Yet, when the election is secured, by other men’s labor, and even against his effort, why, he is the first man on hand for the best office that our state lays any claim to. Shall this thing be? Our whigs will throw down their arms, and fight no more, if the fruit of their labor is thus disposed of.

Lincoln’s opposition to Butterfield was rooted in his desire to strengthen the Whigs in his home state of Illinois by assuring loyal members that their efforts on the party’s behalf would be rewarded.  Historian Thomas Schwartz  examined this episode in a 1986 article for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, which you can read here.

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Ken Burns on his upcoming Gettysburg Address film

In his latest project, The Address, the acclaimed filmmaker focuses on Lincoln’s most famous speech and the efforts of a group of young students to memorize and recite it. Burns recently talked to National Geographic about the documentary, which premieres April 15 on PBS.

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Papers of Abraham Lincoln researchers shed light on mysterious document

A manuscript dealer asked the Papers of Abraham Lincoln staff to make sense of a mysterious Lincoln letter with an unidentified recipient and subject:

Researchers at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project concluded Lincoln was writing to an ally to ask him to maintain a secret relationship with a political insider during the 1860 election campaign.

Lincoln asked his cohort to “keep up a correspondence” with the person, a phrase that gave researchers their best clue. They ran it through a searchable database of Lincoln’s papers and found several matches.

One was in a letter to Lincoln from fellow attorney and Republican Leonard Swett of Bloomington, Ill.

The two men, it turns out, were conspiring to keep tabs on a New York political figure. The mystery note was Lincoln’s response to Swett’s letter, the researchers surmised.

The subject of the letter was probably Thurlow Weed, a newspaper publisher and politician who ultimately opposed the president’s emancipation policy.

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The 150th “official” Thanksgiving

Americans had been celebrating “thanksgivings” in one form or another for a long time before the Civil War, but it wasn’t until Lincoln’s presidency that the holiday acquired a sort of official seal of approval and a standardized date, at least on the national level.

In response to pleas from editor Sarah Josepha Hale (who had been petitioning for such a national holiday for years), on October 3, 1863 Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day.  The country followed this practice until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted an earlier date to accommodate a longer holiday shopping season.  Congress eventually settled on the fourth Thursday in November.

Lincoln’s October 1863 proclamation helped transform Thanksgiving from a holiday limited to certain states and practiced on various days into a genuinely national custom.  Interestingly, Lincoln probably didn’t write it himself; one of his secretaries credited it to William H. Seward.

We’ve featured the proclamation on this blog before, but since this year marks the sesquicentennial of Thanksgiving as an “official” United States holiday, it seems appropriate to post the text again.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth. ABRAHAM LINCOLN

By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

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Lincoln and the Founders’ “new nation”

By Michael Lynch

I didn’t really start taking the Gettysburg Address seriously until one day when I was in grad school, trying to figure out how to finish a paper while eating a roast beef sandwich.  I was enrolled in a seminar on the early national period, and my professor had told us to write an essay answering the following question: Who was more prescient, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson?  Of these two men who had very different visions of what America should be, which one saw the country’s future direction more clearly?

My instinct was to go with Hamilton.  In terms of policy, he was probably the most forward-looking of all the Founders, envisioning a United States with a vigorous, centralized government and a modern, diversified economy.  The overall course of American history has been in this direction, especially since the late nineteenth century.

At the same time, in terms of ideology and values—what Americans have believed about themselves and their country, and what they have wanted to believe about their role in the world—Jefferson casts a long shadow.  If the overall trend of the operation of government and economics has been Hamiltonian, Jefferson’s ideals have been the ones espoused most frequently.  In fact, it’s in terms of equality that Hamilton and the other Federalists look most antiquated, committed as they were to older ideas about elitism and deference.  “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” according to G.K. Chesterton.  “That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence….It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”

A rare photograph of Lincoln at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863. (Wikimedia Commons)

I knew that I’d probably end up hedging a little, noting that while Hamilton was more prescient in terms of the way America has operated, Jefferson was more influential in terms of Americans’ self-definition.  But that answer seemed a little wishy-washy.  I wanted to come up with some sort of definitive answer.

So I was sitting at an Arby’s restaurant, trying to knock out an outline for the paper while getting a bite to eat, when I figured out how to give both Hamilton and Jefferson their due.  Neither man was totally correct.  It was Abraham Lincoln who understood America most clearly, because at Gettysburg he reconciled these two different visions of the nation so that each one supported the other.  Lincoln oversaw a Hamiltonian war—a war of national consolidation, and a war that would result in a more commercial nation with a more vigorous central government—but he did it to achieve Jeffersonian ends.  Indeed, he did it while invoking Jefferson, chapter and verse.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied the birth of America to the promise of liberty and Jefferson’s 1776 “proposition” that all men are created equal.  “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” he had claimed shortly before his presidency.  Lincoln praised Jefferson because his Declaration of Independence did not merely justify the Revolution.  Jefferson had used that document to set down “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

In 1863, the American experiment to work out this “abstract truth”—an experiment only “four score and seven years” old—would either survive and vindicate government of the people, or it would collapse and call the whole enterprise of popular government into question.  If a minority could dissolve the Union due to the outcome of an election, democracy by majority rule was unworkable.  To Lincoln, secession was therefore an existential threat to democratic government itself.  The stakes in the Civil War were breathtakingly high.  The survival of popular government was what the men buried at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion” to defend.

Lincoln thus believed that the Hamiltonian tools of a consolidated Union and an active national government were necessary to secure the Jeffersonian principles of liberty and equality.  These tools would also be the means to extend these Jeffersonian ideals to the enslaved.  The war would not only secure what the Founders had gained, but finish what they had left undone by resolving the great American contradiction of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Rather than merely dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln explained the meaning of America, defined the purpose of the war, paid tribute to the dead, exhorted his audience to continue their struggle on behalf of freedom, and reconciled the two seemingly contradictory American impulses of Union and liberty.  And he did it in less than three hundred words.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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Better late than never

In 1863 a Harrisburg newspaper had some harsh words for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

This week, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the speech, the paper retracted that statement, calling it “a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”

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