Since I work as an editor, people occasionally ask me how they can improve their writing. I tell them to read Lincoln. Just about everything he ever said or wrote, it seems, is thoughtful, concise and beautifully expressed — at times uproariously funny, at others deeply moving.
Some other writers (and speakers) come close at their highest moments, like Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Sweat and Tears” speech, or Roosevelt’s “Fear Itself” speech. But with Lincoln this incredible power of language seems in evidence all the time.
And it is just possible that Lincoln’s highest moment was the Second Inaugural Address, shortly before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. I was just reading a story about it in American Heritage (February 1958) by Philip van Doren Stern, which quotes an account in the New York Herald.
There’s a funny bit about the buffoonery of Andrew Johnson being sworn in after drinking several tumblers of whiskey. But then the narrative turns serious. It had been raining hard for two days, and some of the 30,000 spectators were ankle deep in mud.
“As the President came forward there was a cheer, but not a great one, and at the same time the sun burst through the clouds and lighted up the whole east face very brilliantly…
“The President rose and stepped forward to the reading desk… He looked unusually handsome. When delivering his speech his face glowed with enthusiasm, and he evidently felt every word that he uttered.”
You probably know the speech — Lincoln wound up becoming kind of famous — but let me quote it here because it still carries enormous power:
“Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”