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Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

February 12, 2009

97815651268171Today is, of course, Lincoln’s 200th birthday, with celebrations — and publications — all around. Amidst the many books published in conjunction with the bicentennial, one small volume particularly caught my eye: Lincoln As I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes & Revelations From His Best Friends and Worst Enemies. Further subtitled A Collective Biography, this anthology is edited by Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Lincoln Bicentennial commission, and the selections here include remembrances by friends and family, by journalists, novelists, poets and writers, and by the White House staff themselves.

Here in the midst of a semester in which I’m teaching writing — both academic and creative — the following excerpt stood out to me for its glimpse into the world of Lincoln’s own writing process. The account comes from Thomas T. Eckert, Chief of War Department Telegraph Office, whom Lincoln visited each day for news from the front lines. One day, the president asked for some paper and sat down to write:

I do not recall whether the sheets were loose or had been made into a pad. There must have been at least a quire. He would look out of the window a while and then put his pen to paper, but he did not write much at once. He would study between times and when he had made up his mind he would put down a line or two, and then sit quiet for a few minutes. After a time he would resume his writing, only to stop again at intervals to make some remark to me or to one of the cipher operators as a fresh despatch from the front was handed to him….

On the first day Lincoln did not cover one sheet of his special writing paper (nor indeed on any subsequent day). When ready to leave, he asked me to take charge of what he had written and not allow any one to see it. I told him I would do this with pleasure and would not read it myself. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I should be glad to know that no one will see it, although there is no objection to your looking at it; but please keep it locked up until I call for it to-morrow.’ I said his wishes would be strictly complied with.

When he came to the office on the following day he asked for the papers, and I unlocked my desk and handed them to him and he again sat down to write. This he did nearly every day for several weeks, always handing me what he had written when ready to leave the office each day. Sometimes he would not write more than a line or two, and once I observed the he had put question-marks on the margin of what he had written. He would read over each day all the matters he had previously written and revise it, studying carefully each sentence.

On one occasion he took the papers away with him, but he brought them back a day or two later. I became much interested in the matter and was impressed with the idea that he was engaged upon something of great importance, but did not know what it was until he had finished the document and then for the first time he told me that he had been writing an order giving freedom to the slaves in the South, for the purpose of hastening the end of the war. He said he had been able to work at my desk more quietly and commend his thoughts better than at the White House, where he was frequently interrupted….

(While I recognize that my own students aren’t working on documents of quite such importance, I would certainly love to instill in them the idea of taking the time to get your words straight, reflecting on what you want to communicate before you put it down on paper, revising it to get it just perfect, and always, always finding the best circumstances in which to write at all.)

Lincoln As I Knew Him is a fine one to help remember the 16th president, not as history has analyzed the man and his presidency but as the people of own time engaged with and understood him. Highly recommended. 

And the Emancipation Proclamation itself — so fragile as to be rarely on view — can be seen by the public for a brief five-day period in conjunction with bicentennial events. It’s on view at the National Archives February 12-16 and can also be viewed as a hi-res download from the Archives’ website. A don’t miss event.

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