Lincoln's Notebooks

Letters, Speeches, Journals, and Poems


Edited by Dan Tucker

Foreword by Harold Holzer

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A unique collection of the public and private words and thoughts of one of American’s greatest presidents.

In addition to being one of the most admired and successful politicians in history, Abraham Lincoln was also a gifted writer whose speeches, eulogies, and addresses are both quoted often and easily recognizable all around the world.

Arranged chronologically into topics such as family and friends, the law, politics and the presidency, story-telling, religion, and morality, Lincoln’s Notebooks includes his famous letters to Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley, and Henry Pierce, as well as personal letters to Mary Todd Lincoln and his note to Mrs. Bixby, the mother who lost five sons during the Civil War. Also included are full texts of the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, both of Lincoln’s inaugural addresses, and his famous “A House Divided” speech. Additionally, rarely seen writings like poetry he composed as teenager give insight into Lincoln’s personality and private life.

Richly illustrated with seventy-five photographs, facsimiles of letters, and more, plus commentary throughout by Dan Tucker and a foreword by Lincoln expert Harold Holzer, Lincoln’s Notebooks is an intimate look at this esteemed historical figure.


This portrait of Lincoln from February 1861 by Springfield photographer Christopher German is the last one made before Lincoln left Illinois for Washington to assume the presidency.


At a Loss for Words by Harold Holzer

Writing of the thunderbolt 1862 announcement of Abraham Lincoln's greatest act, the Emancipation Proclamation, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill made a keen observation:

In Britain it was not understood why [Lincoln] had not declared Abolition outright. A political maneuver on his part was suspected.… In America… the Democratic Party in the North was wholly opposed.… In the Federal armies it was unpopular.… At the Congressional elections in the autumn of 1862 the Republicans lost ground. Many Northerners thought that the President had gone too far, others that he had not gone far enough. Great, judicious, and well-considered steps are thus sometimes at first received with public incomprehension.1

Churchill's points were well taken. At the time it was issued, Lincoln's proclamation left both ardent antislavery and rigidly proslavery advocates dissatisfied—abolitionists because it failed to free slaves everywhere, slaveowners because it freed them anywhere. For good measure, its announcement also agitated Union loyalists in slave-holding border states, exempted from the order but sensitive now to the inevitability of freedom. The edict managed as well to outrage countless Federal soldiers who believed they had enlisted in the army solely to preserve the government, not to free slaves. And the proclamation vexed anti-Abolitionist, pro-Democratic Party Union generals, along with whites in the Confederacy, and for good measure the British press, which feared it would ignite a "servile war" that would cause "blood" "and "shrieks" to come "piercing through the darkness." Amidst such a calamity, the London Times hysterically predicted, Lincoln "will rub his hands and think that revenge is sweet."2

Lincoln's response to all the criticism? Not a word. It is worth noting—although Churchill, perhaps out of kindness, did not—that the failure of the American public to rally immediately 'round Lincoln's greatest act may have been attributable at least in part to something very un-Churchillian, and for that matter un-Lincolnian as well: public silence. In fact, while most modern Americans justly regard his words as canonical, Lincoln remained similarly silent for most of his embattled presidency. His administration was more often characterized by the absence of words than by oratory. Understanding that largely forgotten historical reality makes this collection all the more precious, for it documents in a lively and accessible manner the ways Lincoln tested his creative gifts to communicate forcefully to the American public during the Civil War: through the power and publication of his writing, even if tradition required that his voice be stilled.

To be sure, Lincoln wrote to be heard by live audiences for most of his three-decade-long public career. Appropriately, this volume abounds with examples, though many originals do not survive in his own hand. (Lincoln did not bother to have his texts archived until he began employing private secretaries in 1860; until then, seeing his speeches in newspaper print was all that mattered to him.) Nonetheless, his surviving jottings and drafts, in increasingly neat penmanship over the years (quite the opposite of the indecipherable chicken-scratches over which researchers labor today) reveal a keen mind and a sure hand. On the following pages, we can almost imagine ourselves back in the nineteenth century, eavesdropping on Lincoln as his thoughts spilled over into words. He composed more than a million in all, though the highlights presented here will prove more than sufficient to testify to his creative genius and hard labor.

The influential stem-winders of the 1850s are of course still worth remembering: his long oration at Peoria, all but introducing the new anti-slavery Republican Party (here); his passionate attack on the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision; and the amusing, if choppy speeches and rejoinders at his 1858 U.S. Senate debates with Stephen Douglas (here)—although, as they say, you had to be there. However lacerating his quick wit on the stump, Lincoln was never a great extemporaneous speaker, and the debates, famous as they have become in American political lore, brought out the best in neither the Republican nor Democratic candidates. Ingeniously, Lincoln made certain the flawed results would be remembered in spite of themselves, and would serve as a kind of personal platform two years later when he sought the presidency—because by that time tradition forbade him from saying more. Ironically, the collection of debate transcripts—edited and engineered by Lincoln himself—became a bestseller just as their "author" went publicly mute. With rare exceptions, we sometimes forget, he remained so for the rest of his life, including his years in the White House. Thus the explanatory rhetoric he withheld from the Emancipation Proclamation was a rule, not an exception.

What makes Lincoln's presidential communication particularly fascinating—and riveting examples abound in this collection—is that he wrote so much in the White House yet said so little. He had finally assumed a position of leadership from which to unleash his astonishing vocabulary and arresting style nationwide. But because the "bully pulpit" did not yet exist, the words he did issue remained largely unspoken. Chief executives of the day were expected to refrain from addressing their constituents publicly. Accordingly, Lincoln held no signing ceremony, gave no interviews, issued no additional statements, and made no speeches to explain, amplify, or herald the freedom document he knew would not only outrage some Americans and alter the rationale for the entire Civil War, but also make his name long endure in the annals of humankind. He merely ordered the Emancipation Proclamation published, and allowed its dry, legalistic prose to carry the weight of its history-altering message. To a voluble leader like Churchill, accustomed to leading with words—on the streets, at the House of Parliament, on the radio—it must have been hard to understand, much less explain, how Lincoln's most momentous decision had arrived on the American scene in almost stealthy silence. But sometimes the truth runs against the grain of myth.

In Europe, another master of communications who lived in the Lincoln era, Karl Marx, was similarly shocked when Lincoln's document became public. Marx complained that it lacked ornate eloquence: Lincoln

always presents the most important act in the most insignificant form possible. Others, when dealing with square feet of land, proclaim it a 'struggle for ideas.' Lincoln, even when he is dealing with ideas, proclaims their 'square feet.' Hesitant, resistant, unwilling, he sings the bravura aria of his role as though he begged pardon for the circumstances that forced him 'to be a lion.'… His most recent proclamation—the Emancipation Proclamation—the most significant document in American history since the founding of the Union, and one which tears up the old American Constitution, bears the same character.3

Unavoidably, the only 1862 statement by Lincoln on Emancipation that Winston Churchill could quote in his great History was an excerpt from a now-famous letter Lincoln had written to New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley precisely a month before issuing the preliminary proclamation: "My paramount object," Lincoln had insisted, "is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.… What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because it helps to save the Union and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union" (here). While the words were designed to prepare a dubious public for a controversial policy change, some interpreters since have argued that they reveal Lincoln as a calculating politician, not a genuine liberator. Such assessments miss the entire point of Lincoln's presidential writing—its uncanny success at changing hearts and minds through logic, not passion, and through powerful words alone, not personal appearances.

Interestingly, these, the most revealing sentences Lincoln ever wrote about Emancipation—as often misunderstood today as they are quoted—were more than anything else, deceptive, revealing another side of Lincoln the writer: not informing, but misinforming the public. A few days earlier, Greeley had published a stinging rebuke of the Lincoln Administration, charging that the president had been "strangely and disastrously remiss" for failing, after more than a year of war, to do anything to destroy the institution that had caused it—human slavery.4 Lincoln's response was not out of character—either in tone or form. Rhetorically, it was classic Lincoln: what I do, I do to achieve my goal; what I don't do, I don't do to achieve the same goal; if I could succeed by doing nothing, I would do it; if I could succeed by doing something, I would do that. And then the famous, humanizing caveat: this constituted "no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free."

No wonder Greeley threw up his hands in exasperation when he read the letter—especially after Lincoln made certain it was first published in rival papers throughout the country (to get Greeley's goat). Outmaneuvered, the editor sputtered: "I have no doubt that Lincoln's letter had been prepared before he ever saw my 'Prayer,' and that this was merely used by him as an opportunity, an occasion, an excuse for setting his own altered opinion—changed not by his volition, but by circumstances—fairly before the country."5 Only later, and not for publication, did Greeley admit that the ingenious president made "me appear as an officious meddler in affairs that properly belong to the government. No, I can't trust your 'honest Old Abe," Greeley admitted. "He is too smart for me!"6

Greeley was onto something crucial. Lincoln's letter adroitly reinforced his consistent message that his government would address the issue only to save the Union, not necessarily to free the slaves. As Lincoln well knew when he wrote that letter, he had already determined to do just what he had told Greeley he had not yet decided on! The proclamation was already drafted. On the advice of his Cabinet, the cunning president was merely waiting for a battlefield victory so the document could be issued on a wave of success—not as what one minister feared would otherwise be seen as a "last shriek, on the retreat."7

Lincoln may have had it both ways in 1862, but the judgment of history has been harsher. For generations, his critics (along with a number of ill-motivated white supremacists) have cited the Greeley letter as evidence that Lincoln did not really care about slaves at all. True, Lincoln might have done his reputation (not to mention the resulting political crisis) more good by speaking out publicly. But there would be no further words from Lincoln that year, certainly not from his own lips, in public, to amplify the proclamation that ultimately transformed him, in the estimate of many contemporaries, into the Great Emancipator. And the positive reception enjoyed by the Greeley letter emboldened Lincoln to adapt this means of communication in the future—the creation of ostensibly personal letters and responses written to be read by every American.

Appropriately, this book features not only Lincoln's draft of the epochal Emancipation Proclamation, but also Lincoln's handwritten letter to Greeley, showing—through cross-outs, revisions, pasted-in emendations, and his firm, free handwriting—how his precise mind worked, and how he struggled to overcome the traditional lock imposed on his public communication. Of course it should be acknowledged that, in the short term, the Greeley strategy failed. A few weeks after the Emancipation went public, as Churchill briefly noted, voters in the North dealt Lincoln's Republicans a major blow in off-year Congressional elections. The party lost several governorships and state legislatures, including the assembly and senate in Lincoln's own Illinois. Sometimes the power of even masterful words can do no better than stave off total disaster—they take time to enter the realm of classic political literature. The reader might want to ponder whether the Union could have survived beyond 1862 had Lincoln not insisted in his Greeley message that his emancipation goals were military, rather than philanthropic. And readers of this book must always keep in mind that not everything Lincoln said or wrote during his lifetime won universal acclaim.

To best understand and appreciate this extraordinary treasury, the Greeley letter should be viewed as quintessential Lincoln, not only in tone but also in form and format. It originated as a handwritten document: not as a publicly delivered speech, but as what came to be called a "public letter" and published nationwide. It is hard to imagine, but the leader who had earned his spectacular political reputation as a frontier debater, who had thrilled audiences in Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, and New York City in the months leading up to his nomination, became largely mute. The orator who had offered exhausting stem-winding speeches that enthralled, entertained, and engaged with a new kind of political idiom—less bombast, more humor, more legalistic parrying—had become, as candidate and president-elect, to paraphrase the Greeley criticism that provoked his famous response, "strangely and sometimes disastrously" uncommunicative. Not, as this book shows, with his pen. Although constrained by tradition from orating in public, he nevertheless went on to craft a series of letters on issues ranging from civil liberties to black enlistment that, duplicating the Greeley model, he published in the press without articulating them in person.

Lincoln evinced this steely, almost stubborn, resistance to public speaking from the moment he became the Republican candidate for president in May 1860. His principal opponent, Stephen Douglas, did appear before the public after becoming the Northern Democratic nominee (albeit on the pretext of needing a long train trip to see his ailing mother in Vermont—a trip conveniently interrupted at every railroad station from Illinois east for a speaking opportunity). But Lincoln stayed home in Springfield and steadfastly refused to add anything new to his canon of broadly published, widely distributed earlier speeches. When he visited his own mother that fall, he offered well-wishers only a "hearty greeting," insisting the time to talk policy "had not come." Then he shook hands all around and left to "hearty cheering."

By then, significantly, he had personally seen to the printing of the texts of the famous Lincoln–Douglas debates, and had hand-edited a final version of his 1860 New York Cooper Union speech—which circulated in pamphlet form in New York, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, and other cities. Now he chose silence—declining to say or write anything new, as he put it, cautiously marking his few policy letters "confidential" and "strictly private."8

"I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, open to inspection of all," he explained to a nervous Connecticut official in late 1860. "To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and… have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly." The famous debater would debate no more. "I am not at liberty to shift my ground," he told a critic a few days later—"that is out of the question." New speeches, he reiterated, would not only do no good, but "do positive harm."9

As we know, South Carolina greeted Lincoln's election with an ordinance of secession, in the wake of which Lincoln steadfastly maintained his "masterly inactivity" and public silence. Other states followed out of the Union before he ever left for Washington, but still the president-elect said nothing. He did offer an emotional farewell to his neighbors in Springfield on February 11, 1861, but in those remarks, he said little to reassure the frightened public—only to convey his reliance on God to guide him through a task, he had no doubt, would be "greater than that which rested upon Washington" (here)—in itself an astonishing claim at a time when people on both sides of the Mason–Dixon Line regarded George Washington as an incomparable demigod. Though spoken aloud, without a text, at a railroad station, Lincoln's farewell address offers another impressive example of his skills as a writer and editor. Lincoln had assured newspapermen on the scene that he would say nothing at all before his train departed his hometown. Moments later, overcome by emotion, he launched into his brief but elegiac goodbye. Once the engine lurched forward, correspondents who had missed the newsworthy talk begged the president-elect to supply his text. But Lincoln had none. Instead he obligingly commenced writing, then dictating, then again writing a polished version of the impromptu thoughts he had just offered. A comparison between the version transcribed by a Springfield stenographer at the depot and the revision penciled on the rocky train bound for Washington reveals a brilliant craftsman at work refining his thoughts. Here we get a rare glimpse at a brilliant thought leader in the very process of preparing a message for the public on tight deadline.

In the days that followed on the road, Lincoln at first seemed content only to exchange pleasantries and offer jokes, or to assure state legislatures that he was but a modest man who happened to be ascending to the highest office in his country, and could do little harm before a new man came along four years hence. In all, he repeated his non-message more than a hundred times along his zig-zagging route to the capital.

Only when his inaugural procession reached the East did he seem, almost magically, to come to the realization that something more was expected of him. Ultimately, he rose to the challenge with a stirring speech in Trenton in which he finally confided, recalling the founding fathers: "I am exceedingly anxious that that thing which they struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come… shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made." The next morning, he stunned an audience outside Independence Hall, by declaring, his voice choking with emotion, "I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it."10 He never let on that assassination was vividly on his mind that day, having just been warned that a credible death threat awaited him on the final leg of his inaugural journey through Baltimore. Some things could be shared with the public—others, not.

Had Lincoln not sullied this new oratorical momentum by choosing to abide by his advisors' fears and slipping through Baltimore to evade the suspected assassination plot—in some semblance of disguise—his inaugural journey might have been heralded as one of the most successful in history. Baltimore notwithstanding, it was precisely that: a brilliant balancing act incorporating homespun stories designed to stimulate public affection, and literate, passionate references to the Constitution and the founders to build public confidence. In the bargain, Lincoln deftly claimed the icons of history for the cause of Union—even though most of them had been born in the South.

Still, once sworn in, and with a monumental and long underappreciated first inaugural address behind him—another effort reflecting his skill at editing, not just writing (here)—Lincoln grew more Whiggish than ever when it came to presidential oratory. He seemed to believe the letter of tradition: that presidents were chosen by electors, not by direct vote of the people, and thus were not supposed to appeal to citizens on a regular basis. His office hours were generous and exhausting; even in the crucible of war, he welcomed strangers to the White House on the most routine business.11 But communicate with them directly, and en masse? No more.

It is hard to imagine, but once installed at the House, Lincoln all but disappeared from view—except for a few flag-raisings and troop reviews. The United States does not require its chief executives to come before its legislative branch to report and defend their policies. The president is not by, of, and for the Congress, as the prime minister is in Great Britain. Since the John Adams administration, no president had even given his annual messages to Congress—the nineteenth-century versions of today's State of the Union messages—in person. True to tradition, Lincoln sent all five of his own messages—one special and four annual—to Capitol Hill each year via a White House secretary. There, they were read aloud by a clerk of the House. "We cannot escape history," he said memorably in the 1862 iteration. "The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation." How moving that might have sounded had Lincoln delivered those words himself—but he did not. A functionary read them aloud, maybe without expression; the public read them the next day in the press.

Lincoln's presidential mailbag overflowed with invitations to events that no modern president would think of ignoring: to rallies; meetings; a ceremony to celebrate the transcontinental railroad; innumerable events with his troops (only a handful of which Lincoln graced with his presence); the chance to return to Cooper Union, the scene of one of his greatest triumphs; and to return home to Springfield for a mass rally of loyal Union men who sorely needed a dressing-down about their racist resistance to black resistance. They all elicited refusals: opportunities offered, declined, and lost. "If I were as I have been for most of my life," Lincoln awkwardly told a group of well-wishers who gathered to see him during an impromptu visit to Frederick, Maryland, "I might perhaps talk amusing to you for half an hour, and it wouldn't hurt anybody." But now, he explained, "it is hardly proper for me to make speeches. Every word is so closely noted that it will not do to make trivial ones, and I cannot be expected to make a matured one just now." What he had said on the eve of his presidency still applied: "I am rather inclined to silence."12

"In my present position," he told a supporter who had urged him to speak at a Union Mass Meeting in Buffalo timed to occur during the 1864 presidential election campaign: "I believe it is not customary for one holding the office, and being a candidate for re-election, to do so." As always, he preferred a "public letter," and produced one that could be read aloud by someone else. It proved a stirring defense of his administration's refusal to acquiesce in public calls for an armistice that might save lives, but would spell the destruction of the Union. And it ended with a ringing reiteration of the president's faith in newly recruited African American troops.13

By then, Abraham Lincoln, still consummately famous as an orator, had perfected the art of the written public message—through which he could, in a way, remain heard but not seen. There was the 1864 letter to Buffalo; a long, tough, well-received 1863 letter to Albany Democrats who had questioned his broad use of executive powers to suppress the rebellion (here); and his rather ugly August 1862 comments to a deputation of free African Americans—calling bluntly for their banishment and colonization—crafted to be read in the press by whites to remind them that their president harbored no philanthropic desire to give comfort to people of color (here). Such expressions of sympathy might have driven the border states into the Confederacy, dooming the struggle to hold the fragile Union coalition together.

Most famous of all, perhaps, was Lincoln's extraordinary open letter to the citizens of his home town—perhaps his greatest undelivered "speech" (here). In response to this one enticing occasion, Lincoln vacillated. The exchange of letters with his host, onetime neighbor James C. Conkling, indicates that he did, in fact, want very much to return to Springfield to speak for himself, tradition be damned. "I think I will go," he hinted a week before the event—"or send a letter," adding, almost schizophrenically, "—probably the latter."14 His inevitable final "note" explained: "It would be very agreeable to me to… meet my old friends at my own home, but I cannot just now be absent from here, so long as a visit there would require." Instead he asked Conkling to pronounce it aloud—with one suggestion that offers a priceless hint at his own style of public speaking: "Read it very slowly."15

"You say you will not fight to free negroes," he bluntly told his neighbors in that text. "Some of them seem willing to fight for you.… And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and with deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it." To be sure, these were dazzling words—and widely published—but like so many of Lincoln's greatest as president, unspoken by the great orator who wrote them to be said aloud. Worse, when the earliest press reprints appeared annoyingly garbled, Lincoln may have resolved that his next invitation to make a speech—at Gettysburg, as it transpired—would not be declined. Lincoln would not only agree to help dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery on that hallowed battlefield on November 19, 1863, he would examine and correct the Associated Press transcription before departing.16

In considering Lincoln's presidential writing—or a book that showcases that writing—it is thus crucial to keep in mind what a rare and reluctant public speaker he became. He delivered two inaugural addresses—each in its own way a masterpiece. He spoke haltingly, and unmemorably, at a charity fair in Philadelphia late in the war, and once unexpectedly addressed a crowd at a New Jersey train station with all the grace of a deer in the headlights when caught returning to Washington after what he had thought was a top-secret strategy meeting with retired General Winfield Scott. "The Secretary of War, you know, holds a pretty tight rein on the Press," he tried joking that day, "and I'm afraid that if I blab too much he might draw a tight rein on me." As president, the master public speaker did not "blab too much."17 He pursued a policy of speaking as seldom as possible.


On Sale
Aug 8, 2017
Page Count
256 pages