February 12 marks the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, who is not only one of our greatest Presidents—perhaps the greatest American President—but one of the great leaders in world history. Lincoln is also arguably the greatest writer among the Presidents.
All of our Presidents have left behind a body of writing, usually consisting of policy statements, speeches, letters, and the like. Some of our Presidents have actually been authors prior to taking office as President. Jefferson was responsible for most of the Declaration of Independence and also wrote one book: Notes on the State of Virginia. Woodrow Wilson was a historian, a Ph.D who authored several books on politics and history. Theodore Roosevelt wrote books on nature and history prior to assuming the Presidency. In the second half of the twentieth century, some of our Presidents have written numerous books during their post-Presidential careers.
Two of the most prolific are men who were trained in the non-literary discipline of engineering: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Hoover wrote books on politics, policy, history and fishing, and even authored a biography of Woodrow Wilson. Carter has written a variety of books, ranging from commentaries on Middle Eastern politics and reflections on the Scriptures to a historical novel set during the American Revolution. Others have written memoirs and occasional books addressing political issues and history.
Lincoln never wrote any books. His life was cut short during his second term. But of all our Presidents he was the greatest writer, a man who could compose the elegant and profound lines of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural as well as robust and fascinating pieces of persuasive writing, such as the “Address at Cooper Institute” (also called the Cooper Union) concerning slavery in the United States.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Kentucky. He and his family later moved to Indiana, and as a young man Lincoln moved on to Illinois. He knew the rough and tumble frontier world of the early United States. His formal education amounted to a handful of months in country schools, but he read voraciously. On two separate occasions he worked on a flatboat carrying goods down to New Orleans. He worked as a storekeeper and postmaster, a farm hand and railsplitter, and served as a militia officer during the Black Hawk War. He later read law and became a lawyer, and many of Lincoln’s writings show his skill at carefully crafted argumentation. He was steeped in the classics: the Bible, Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s Puritan classic The Pilgrim’s Progress.
In his lifetime Lincoln wrote letters, including a number addressed to editors, speeches, some poetry, and his immortal public statements: the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural, this last being most likely Lincoln’s greatest work.
His writing blends many elements. His language could be lofty and poetic, yet sinewy and trenchant. He could vary his language to the demands of the audience, and there was often a salt-of-the-earth flavor to his anecdotes reflecting his frontier upbringing. There is a marvelous clarity to much of his writing—Lincoln’s capacity for language was an important ingredient in the success he achieved as a lawyer. And his writing can be sonorous, demonstrating also an innate capacity for rhythm, skillful handling of complex ideas, emotional power, expert use of repetition of words and phrases, and highly effective parallelism (“of the people, by the people, for the people”).
There are assorted collections of Lincoln’s writings available. I have a copy of Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln, published by Bantam Books and selected and edited by author and journalist Herbert Mitgang. It has an excellent selection of Lincoln’s writing, and it makes for fascinating reading. I hope you might consider taking some time to explore President Lincoln’s rich and masterful prose.