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Lincoln The Orator
Our most talented writer-president always wrote his own material and sweated hours over it
Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
To construct his speech as a historical and political lecture kept faith with the spirit of the invitation, the integrity of the series of which his lecture was supposed to be a part, and the sacredness of the intended venue: Plymouth Church, an abolitionist shrine. Moreover it promised the chance to reinvigorate, and perhaps crown, Lincoln’s bumpy career as a professional lecturer, which had seen more failures than successes and had embarrassed him before his friends. Finally, it offered him the opportunity to approach the wrenching issue of slavery from a new and challenging perspective: using the lessons and precedents of the American past.
It also called for inordinate toil. Unless we accept Herndon’s account at face value, no one really knows precisely when the idea for a lecture on political history first gripped Lincoln. But once he settled on it, he realized that he would have to work terribly hard if he was to unearth the sources necessary to support his case. He employed no researchers to check references, no speechwriters to compose drafts. Lincoln wrote all of his orations himself, pen to paper, word by word. As his friend and former law partner Ward Hill Lamon noted, “no effort of his life cost him so much labor as this one.”
A possible witness to those tense days was Henry Bascom Rankin, who claimed to have served as a young clerk in the Lincoln-Herndon office. Although he may have later exaggerated his professional connection, Rankin surely saw the pair and he recalled that “Herndon’s patience was tried sorely at times" as Lincoln progressed “very slowly on the speech . . . loitering and cutting, as he thought, too laboriously” Census records show that Rankin was actually employed in early 1860 as a farmhand in nearby Petersburg, but it is certainly possible that he saw Lincoln in the capital from time to time, or heard from people about how the speech was prepared.
For three or four months, Rankin later testified, Lincoln worked assiduously at “writing and revising his great speech.” He “spent most of his time, at first, in the study and arrangement of the historical facts he decided to use. These he collected or verified at the State Library” Lincoln also liked to talk and read aloud to gauge the reaction of potential audiences, and supposedly he held “frequent” discussions with Herndon “as to the historical facts and the arrangements of these in the speech.”
Lincoln might have stepped into the adjacent office of a fellow lawyer to go over one detail or another. Rankin, who insisted that he was “privileged to be present” on such occasions, seemed sure that Lincoln “devoted more time to the speech than any he ever delivered.” No one, not even verifiable eyewitnesses, ever contradicted him.
Whatever his access, Rankin was correct that Lincoln’s meticulous preparation demonstrated not only “the great grasp he had acquired in the discussion of political events,” but “his peculiar originality in moulding sentences and paragraphs.”
Going by contemporary accounts of his work habits, it is easy to imagine Lincoln grappling with his theme: bent over a table, pen in hand, squinting in the gaslight as he sat before piles of massive old volumes inside the handsome law library on the first floor of the state house across the square. Here, his head characteristically resting on his thumb, his index finger curved across his lips and up the side of his nose, his other fingers tightly clenched, he pored over law and history books with intense concentration. When engaged in writing, whether at his small desk in his bedroom at home, in the law library, or in his noisy office, he would set an elbow on the table, place his chin in his hand, and “maintain this position as immovable as a statue” for up to half an hour at a time, lost in thought.
Volk’s report of how casually Lincoln had brushed off the Cooper Union speech appalled Rankin, who charitably dismissed the sculptor’s reminiscence as “an unfortunate lapse of memory.”
On this subject, Rankin and Herndon uncharacteristically found themselves in complete agreement—no small feat, considering that Rankin detested Herndon, and the feelings, if Herndon harbored any, were probably mutual. Subsequent generations of historians have occasionally questioned the accuracy of both men’s recollections, Rankin’s especially. In the final analysis, whether or not he knew the future president as well as he claimed, Rankin is certainly believable about the effort that the Cooper Union address caused Lincoln.
Another sculptor left far more believable testimony about Lincoln’s penchant for preparation. In late January and early February 1861, the president-elect began posing for Thomas Dow Jones, who had been commissioned by his Ohio patrons to execute a bust of Lincoln. The busy politician had little time to sit, but he agreed to visit Jones’s Springfield hotel room for an hour or so each morning, letting the sculptor work on a clay model while he opened his daily mail and did other paperwork.
At some of these sittings, Jones noticed Lincoln slowly writing on long sheets of lined paper. He discovered that the president-elect was drafting passages for some of the speeches he would be expected to make at his upcoming stopovers at Indianapolis and other cities on the journey to his inauguration. Although some eyewitnesses to these orations later criticized the talks for what they took as an all-too¬rambling spontaneity, in truth, Lincoln worked assiduously at his arguments for an orderly presidential transition.