Once, at the Library of Congress in Washington, I was shown the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night that he was shot at Ford’s Theater. There was a Confederate bank note, perhaps acquired during the President’s recent excursion to the fallen capital, Richmond; a pocket knife; a couple of newspaper cuttings (good notices for his administration); and two pairs of spectacles. It was eerie to hold in one’s hand what looked to be the same spectacles that he wore as he was photographed reading the Second Inaugural Address, the month before his murder. One of the wire “legs” of the spectacles had broken off and someone, presumably Lincoln himself, had clumsily repaired it with a piece of darning wool. I tried on the glasses: he was indeed farsighted, and what must have been to him the clearly printed lines, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,” was to my myopic eyes a gray quartz-like blur.

Next, I was shown the Bible which the President had kissed as he swore his second oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States; the oath that he often used, in lieu of less spiritual argument, to justify the war that he had fought to preserve the Union. The Bible is small and beautifully bound, with a tiny lock and key. To the consternation of the custodian, I turned the key and opened the book. The pages were as bright and clear as the day that they were printed; in fact, they stuck together in such a way as to suggest that no one had ever even riffled them. Obviously the book had been sent for at the last moment; then given away, to become a treasured relic.

Although Lincoln belonged to no Christian church, he did speak of the “Almighty” more and more often as the war progressed. During the Congressional election of 1846, Lincoln had been charged with “infidelity” to Christianity. At the time, he made a rather lawyerly response. To placate those who insist that presidents must be devout monotheists (preferably Christian and Protestant), Lincoln allowed that he himself could never support “a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.” The key word, of course, is “open.” As usual, Lincoln does not lie—something that the Jesuits maintain that no wise man does—but he shifts the argument to his own advantage and gets himself off the atheistical hook much as Thomas Jefferson had done almost a century earlier.

Last, I was shown a life mask, made shortly before the murder. The hair on the head has been tightly coveredover; the whiskers greased. When the sculptor Saint-Gaudens first saw it, he thought it was a death mask, so worn and remote is the face. I was most startled by the smallness of the head. In photographs, with hair and beard, the head had seemed in correct proportion to Lincoln’s great height. But this vulpine little face seems strangely vulnerable. The cheeks are sunken in. The nose is sharper than in the photographs, and the lines about the wide thin mouth are deep. With eyes shut, he looks to be a small man, in rehearsal for his death.

Those who knew Lincoln always thought it a pity that there was never a photograph of him truly smiling. A non-user of tobacco, he had splendid teeth for that era, and he liked to laugh, and when he did, Philip Hone noted, the tip of his nose moved like a tapir’s.

Gertrude Stein used to say that U.S. Grant had the finest American prose style. The general was certainly among our best writers but he lacked music (Gertrude lacked it too, but she did have rhythm). Lincoln deployed the plain style as masterfully as Grant; and he does have music. In fact, there is now little argument that Lincoln is one of the great masters of prose in our language and the only surprising aspect of so demonstrable a fact is that there are those who still affect surprise. Partly, this is due to the Education Mafia that has taken over what little culture the United States has and, partly, to the sort of cranks, who maintain that since Shakespeare had little Latin and less Greek, and did not keep company with kings, he could never have written so brilliantly of kings and courts, and so not he but some great lord had written the plays in his name.

For all practical purposes, Lincoln had no formal education. But he studied law, which meant reading not only Blackstone (according to Jeremy Bentham, a writer “cold, reserved and wary, exhibiting a frigid pride”) but brooding over words in themselves and in combination. In those days, most good lawyers, like good generals, wrote good prose; if they were not precisely understood, a case or a battle might be lost.


William Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, Illinois, from 1844 to February 18, 1861, when Lincoln went to Washington to be inaugurated president. Herndon is the principal source for Lincoln’s prepresidential life. He is a constant embarrassment to Lincoln scholars because they must rely on him; yet since Lincoln is the national deity, they must omit a great deal of Herndon’s testimony about Lincoln. For one thing, Lincoln was something of a manic-depressive, to use current jargon. In fact, there was a time when, according to Herndon, Lincoln was “as ‘crazy as a loon’ in this city in 1841.” Since this sort of detail does not suit the history departments, it is usually omitted or glossed over, or poor Herndon is accused of telling lies.

The Lincoln of the hagiographers is forever serene and noble in defeat as well as in victory. With perfect hindsight, they maintain that it was immediately apparent that the Lincoln—Douglas contest had opened wide the gates of political opportunity for Lincoln. Actually, after Lincoln’s defeat by Douglas for the US Senate, he was pretty loon-like for a time; and he thought that the gates of political opportunity had slammed shut for him. Lincoln’s friend, Henry C. Whitney, in a letter to Herndon, wrote:

I shall never forget the day—January 6, 1859—I went to your office and found Lincoln there alone. He appeared to be somewhat dejected—in fact I never saw a man so depressed. I tried to rally his drooping spirits…but with ill success. He was simply steeped in gloom. For a time he was silent…blurting out as he sank down: “Well, whatever happens I expect everyone to desert me now, but Billy Herndon.”

Despite the busyness of the Lincoln priests, the rest of us can still discern the real Lincoln by entering his mind through what he wrote, a seductive business, by and large, particularly when he shows us unexpected views of the familiar. Incidentally, to read Lincoln’s letters in holograph is revelatory; the writing changes dramatically with his mood. In the eloquent, thought-out letters to Mrs. Bixby and other mourners for the dead, he writes a clear firm hand. When the governor of Massachussetts, John A. Andrew, in the summer of 1862, wrote that he could not send troops because his paymasters were incapable of “quick work,” Lincoln replied, “Please say to these gentlemen that if they do not work quickly I will make quick work of them. In the name of all that is reasonable, how long does it take to pay a couple of regiments?” The words tumble from Lincoln’s pen in uneven rows upon the page and one senses not only his fury but his terror that the city of Washington might soon fall to the rebels.

Since 1920 no American president has written his state speeches; lately, many of our presidents seem to experience some difficulty in reading aloud what others have written for them to say. But until Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, it was assumed that the chief task of the first magistrate was to report to the American people, in their Congress assembled, upon the state of the union. The president was elected not only to execute the laws but to communicate to the people his vision of the prospect before us. As a reporter to the people, Lincoln surpassed all presidents. Even in his youthful letters and speeches, he is already himself. The prose is austere and sharp; there are few adjectives and adverbs; and then, suddenly, sparks of humor.

Fellow Citizens—It will be but a very few words that I shall undertake to say. I was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana and lived in Illinois. And now I am here, where it is my business to care equally for the good people of all the States…. There are but few views or aspects of this great war upon which I have not said or written something whereby my own opinions might be known. But there is one—the recent attempts of our erring brethren, as they are sometimes called—to employ the negro to fight for them. I have neither written nor made a speech on that subject, because that was their business, not mine; and if I had a wish upon the subject I had not the power to introduce it, or make it effective. The great question with them was, whether the negro, being put into the army, would fight for them. I do not know, and therefore cannot decide. They ought to know better than we. I have in my lifetime heard many arguments why the negroes ought to be slaves; but if they fight for those who would keep them in slavery it will be a better argument than any I have yet heard. He who will fight for that ought to be a slave. They have concluded at last to take one out of four of the slaves, and put them in the army; and that one out of the four who will fight to keep the others in slavery ought to be a slave himself unless he is killed in a fight. While I have often said that all men ought to be free, yet I would allow those colored persons to be slaves who want to be; and next to them those white persons who argue in favor of making other people slaves. I am in favor of giving an opportunity to such white men to try it on for themselves.

Also, as a lawyer on circuit, Lincoln was something of a “stand-up comedian,” able to keep an audience laughing for hours as he appeared to improvise his stories; actually, he claimed no originality as “I am a re-tailer.”


Lincoln did not depend very much on others for help when it came to the writing of the great papers. Secretary of State William Seward gave him a line or two for the coda of the First Inaugural Address, while the poetry of Shakespeare and the prose of the King James version of the Bible were so much in Lincoln’s blood that he occasionally slipped into iambic pentameter.

The Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862, has echoes of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth (ominously, Lincoln’s favorite play):

We can not escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

A few years earlier, at Brown University, Lincoln’s young secretary, John Hay, wrote a valedictory poem. Of his class’s common memories, “Our hearts shall bear them safe through life’s commotion / Their fading gleam shall light us to our graves.” But, of course, Macbeth had said long before Hay, “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.”

Of Lincoln’s contemporaries, William Herndon has given us the best close-up view of the man that he had shared an office with for seventeen years. “He was the most continuous and severest thinker in America. He read but little and that for an end. Politics were his Heaven, and his Hades metaphysics.” As for the notion that Lincoln was a gentle, humble, holy man, even John Hay felt obliged to note that “no great man was ever modest. It was [Lincoln’s] intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Summer could never forgive.” Along with so much ambition and secretiveness of nature, Lincoln also had an impish sense of humor; he liked to read aloud comic writers like Petroleum V. Nasby, and he told comic stories to divert, if not others, himself from the ongoing tragedy at whose center he was.

What was it like to be in the audience when Lincoln made a speech? What did he really look like? What did he sound like? To the first question we have the photographs: but they are motionless. He was six feet four, “more or less stoop-shouldered,” wrote Herndon. “He was very tall, thin, and gaunt…. When he first began speaking, he was shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him.” Then, “he gently and gradually warmed up…voice became harmonious, melodious, musical, if you please, with face somewhat aglow…. Lincoln’s gray eyes would flash fire when speaking against slavery or spoke volumes of hope and love when speaking of liberty, justice and the progress of mankind.”

Of Lincoln’s politics, Herndon wrote, he “was a conscientious conservative; he believed in Law and Order. See his speech before Springfield Lyceum in 1838.” This speech is indeed a key to Lincoln’s character, for it is here that he speaks of the nature of ambition and how, in a republic that was already founded, a tyrant might be tempted to reorder the state in his own image. At the end Lincoln himself did just that. There is a kind of terrible Miltonian majesty in his address to the doubtless puzzled young men of the Springfield Lyceum. In effect, their twenty-nine-year-old contemporary was saying that, for the ambitious man, it is better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven.

In the end whether or not Lincoln’s personal ambition undid him and the nation is immaterial. He took a divided house and jammed it back together. He was always a pro-Union man. As for slavery, he was averse, rather than adverse, to the institution but no Abolitionist. Lincoln’s eulogy on Henry Clay (July 6, 1852) is to the point. Of Clay, Lincoln wrote,

As a politician or statesman, no one was so habitually careful to avoid all sectional ground. Whatever he did, he did for the whole country….Feeling as he did, and as the truth surely is, that the world’s best hope depended on the continued union of the States, he was ever jealous of, and watchful for, whatever might have the slightest tendency to separate them.

He supports Clay’s policy of colonizing the blacks elsewhere; today any mention of Lincoln’s partiality for this scheme amuses black historians and makes many of the white ones deal economically with the truth.

Eight years later, the eulogist, now the President, promptly made war on those states that had chosen to depart the Union on the same high moral ground that Lincoln himself had so eloquently stated at the time of the Mexican War in 1848: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” Lawyer Lincoln would probably have said, rather bleakly, that the key phrase here was “and having the power.” The Confederacy did not have the power; six hundred thousand men died in the next four years; and the Confederacy was smashed and Lincoln was murdered.

In a sense, we have had three republics. The first, a loose confederation of former British colonies, lasted from 1776 to 1789 when the first Congress under the Constitution met. The second republic ended April 9, 1865, with the South’s surrender. In due course Lincoln’s third republic was transformed (inevitably?) into the national security state where we have been locked up for forty years. A fourth republic might be nice.

In any event, for better or worse, we still live in the divided house that Lincoln cobbled together for us, and it is always useful to get to know through his writing not the god of the establishment-priests but a literary genius who was called upon to live, rather than merely to write, a high tragedy. I can think of no one in literary or political history quite like this essential American writer.

This Issue

August 15, 1991