In addition to serving as Chief Executive during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the finest writer of all American Presidents. His two inaugural addresses and his speech inaugurating a national cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield are among the nation’s most famed and poetic documents. Lincoln displayed an ability to transmute into the English of the 1860s his command of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and classical literature, as well as the momentous issues of the day.
Lincoln’s first inauguration, on March 4, 1861, occurred in the midst of great crisis. Seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union. Lincoln had traveled secretly at night to Washington, DC, to thwart a rumored assassination plot. An armed cordon of Federal troops lined his inaugural parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue.
As the new President took his oath of office, above him rose, with heavy symbolism, the scaffolded dome of the Capitol Building, its reconstruction but partway complete.
Hoping to head off war while at the same time wishing to signal strength, Lincoln chose a balanced approach. While he spoke before a large and expectant crowd, his real audience was the region in secession. The new President pledged not to alter slavery where it already existed, while insisting the Union was eternal and unbreakable “No government proper,” he asserted, “ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”
He ended with a stirring call for unity among divided countrymen:
The choice of terms was fortuitous. Lincoln had originally planned to end his speech with the words, "Shall it be peace or sword?" However, his adviser and future Secretary of State, William Seward, convinced him to close with a more compromising call.
On November 19, 1863, Lincoln journeyed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to speak at the opening of a Soldiers’ National Cemetery, honoring the troops who’d died at the battle there the previous July. Over 51,000 men had been killed or wounded on both sides.
Before the assembled throng of 15,000, Lincoln had a difficult act to follow. The prior speaker was Edward Everett of Massachusetts, a former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and head of Harvard University—and a noted orator. Everett gave an impressive speech lasting two hours.
The President spoke for a bit more than two minutes, uttering 272 words.
He made two main points.
One was to honor the fallen:
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live…But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
The other was to cast the long and bloody war as a crusade for freedom and democracy:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In this grand paragraph’s opening phrase, Lincoln echoed the Psalms’ description of a man’s lifespan as "threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years.” He then deliberately quoted the Declaration of Independence’s phrase of “all men are created equal.” Next, his phrase “the last full measure of devotion” entered the American lexicon. Then the President uttered perhaps his most famous phrase: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The following day, Everett wrote Lincoln: "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes." Lincoln proved less a judge of rhetoric than Everett, telling an official about his own talk: “That speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure."
Few writers have so underestimated their talent. Or impact.
From Turner Publishing's A Patriot’s A to Z of America, by Edward P. Moser