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Ghosts In The White House
Discreet helpers have worked on the speeches and papers of many Presidents, but a nation in a time of trial will respond best “to the Great Man himself, standing alone”
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
From these alluring digressions I must return to an examination of presidential practices, Jefferson, the two Adamses, Madison, and Monroe were all highly literate and evidently preferred their own tested methods of writing. It was generally believed that Duff Green, Frank P. Blah, and even George Bancroft sometimes assisted President Andrew Jackson with his state papers. More than once in later American history well-endowed ghosts volunteered their services to Presidents. In 1841, Webster, just appointed secretary of state, drafted what he hoped might be William Henry Flarrison’s inaugural address; but the General, aging though not senile, had brought with him to Washington his own message and at first declined any help. When finally he was induced to consult Webster, the latter urged him to eliminate some of the numerous references to Greek and Roman heroes. One evening Mrs. Seaton, Webster’s hostess, inquired whether anything had happened during the day. “You would think something had happened,” the “godlike Dan’l” replied, “if you knew what I have done. I have killed seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them.” Even in such a negative and ferocious fashion, ghostwriting has altered the national archives.
Many of our pre-Civil War Presidents could have profited by the advice of candid, talented friends. I have always enjoyed what the caustic ex-President John Quincy Adams said of another President, James K. Polk: “He has no wit, no literature, no point of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that can constitute an orator, but confidence, fluency, and labor.” That would seem to have settled the matter, but I am sure that Adams would have been glad to be of ghostly assistance had he been invited—which at no point was ever likely.
Such an indictment could not have been made of Abraham Lincoln, who, although limited in his formal education, was always able to transmute his ideas into felicitous verbal expression. In getting ready for his Cooper Union Address on February 27, 1860, in New York, he “searched the dusty volumes of Congressional proceedings in the State Library,” examined the basic principles of government, and alone produced what Horace Greeley called “the very best political address to which I ever listened.” His farewell to his Springfield neighbors, only 150 words in length, so simple and yet so moving, was spoken without a manuscript. For it he neither needed nor received any aid.
Shortly before that, the President-elect, faced with the obligation of saying something significant at his inauguration, shut himself up in a room over a store across the street from the Illinois statehouse and there, in cheerless but uninterrupted isolation, read and thought and pondered over phrasing until the words were down on paper. Then he had it set up and carried it with him to Washington. Over it he had toiled unusually hard, modifying its language from morning to morning. When he reached the capital, he submitted it to William H. Seward and Orville H. Browning, both of whom made helpful suggestions. The noble closing paragraph referring to the “mystic chords of memory” was conceived originally by Seward but improved by Lincoln. Some of the changes were significant; but the Springfield Republican was correct in saying, “No one can doubt that Mr. Lincoln is the author of his own Inaugural.”
Although the Gettysburg Address is commonly assumed to have been entirely Lincoln’s, some mystery is connected with it. He evidently composed it rather hastily in Washington, where he read it to Ward H. Lamon, with the comment that he was not at all satisfied and was afraid it would not come up to popular expectation. On the evening before, Lincoln took the sheets of paper and went next door in Gettysburg for a half hour’s conference with Seward. What took place during their meeting neither man ever revealed, but it is unlikely that the President made any significant changes in what is now regarded as his masterpiece.
Various Presidents since Lincoln have followed different methods, depending on their temperaments, experience, and faith in themselves. Garfield, confronted with the necessity of composing a letter accepting the Republican nomination, wrote Blaine, “Please write me your suggestions on any phase of it.” Invitations of this nature, it may be added, are seldom declined by American politicians. The resulting reply was apparently a composite, including sections by William Evarts and Carl Schurz, as well as Blaine. As March 4 drew near, Garfield bravely undertook to read the inaugural addresses of his predecessors, reaching the not unjustified conclusion that “those of the past, except Lincoln’s, are dreary reading.” Worn out by this self-imposed drudgery, he felt what he described as “an unusual repugnance to writing” and instructed his political agent, T. M. Nichol, to prepare an outline. Soon, however, Garfield’s conscience became so active that he started to recast what Nichol had produced. To a friend he confessed, “I wrote the last sentence at hall-past two o’clock A.M. , March 4.” Even his friendly biographer had to admit that the published address was “devoid of imagination or elevated rhetoric.”