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Lincoln the Writer at 200

On the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, Dennis Baron discovers that the Great Emancipator was also the Great Reviser. Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language.

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, or to mix 19th- with 21st-century styles, the man whom CNN and Time would call "16" was born ten score years ago.

Lincoln's Birthday is a day that used to be a school holiday, a day to honor Lincoln the emancipator, Lincoln the orator, and Lincoln the martyr separate from Presidents Day, a holiday which serves as little more than an excuse to go out and buy stuff  — and so to add to the many celebrations of Lincoln on this bicentennial anniversary, we might also consider one of his lesser-known qualities: according to Douglas L. Wilson, Abraham Lincoln was a constant reviser of his own prose.

Gettysburg Address excerpt
The opening of the first draft of the Gettysburg Address

For example, the Library of Congress manuscript collection has three versions of the Gettysburg Address. The "first draft," also called the "Nicolay draft," because Lincoln gave that copy to one of his two private secretaries, John Nicolay, was written on two pieces of paper — a piece of executive mansion stationery and a sheet of lined note paper. It may or may not have been the copy Lincoln read from at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, but it contains one autograph correction at the bottom of the page:

An emended excerpt of the first draft of the Address
Bottom of the first page of the first draft, showing a change Lincoln made

Lincoln changed the original "It is rather for us, the living, to stand here" to, "It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us."

The "second draft," also called the "Hay draft" because Lincoln gave that copy to his other secretary, John Hay, was further revised with interlinear corrections and it silently changes some of the first draft wording: "It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on."

 Excerpt from the second draft
The second draft of the Gettysburg Address shows more changes

And the version carved on the Lincoln Memorial uses still different wording: "It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." 

Excerpt of inscription on Lincoln Memorial
Transcription of the Gettysburg Address on the Lincoln Memorial,
showing further changes to the wording

Not only does the text of the various versions of the Gettysburg Address differ, but it's also likely that none of them records the exact words that Lincoln said when he delivered his speech.

Wilson claims that Lincoln was a careful speech reader, that he even read out versions of letters to his staff, to friends, and to the cabinet not to get their feedback — he apparently didn't ask for corrections or suggestions — but to clarify the wording in his own mind. But when they make their speeches, all politicians stray from their prepared remarks, misreading here, ad libbing there, emending as they go. It's likely that Lincoln strayed, if only slightly, from the reading version of his text.

Lincoln tinkered with his words before reading, while reading, and afterwards as well. For him, no version was ever final. None of this detracts from the grandeur and importance we attach to the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, or Lincoln's other writing. It just shows that the postmodern notion of an unstable text — particularly noticeable when we deal with the digitized words of the internet — has been alive and well for hundreds of years, perhaps since writers first put pen to paper or stylus to clay.

After the Civil War the union came back together, and the United States has remained one nation, indivisible, ever since. A day before Lincoln's bicentennial, Rep. Steve King of Iowa reintroduced the English Language Unity Act, H.R. 997, on the House floor. Supporters of official English like to think that speaking one language is what holds a fragile American union together. Speaking in support of the measure, the chair of U.S. English, Mauro E. Mujica, said, "I hope the 111th Congress will be the one to promote our common language and cease separating people along language lines."

But Americans don't separate along language lines. Sometimes supporters of official English argue that immigrants can't understand the principles on which the U.S. was founded unless they can read documents like the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation in the original English.

Opening of the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation

But speaking English didn't preserve the Union in 1861, and a common language didn't reunite the nation four years later.  That took the rule of law, backed up by military force, not to mention a presidential assassination that underscored the horrors of the Civil War. And even with all the might of the federal government behind the Union, many states in the former Confederacy never designated a school holiday to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday.

Reading founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, or the Constitution in the original English won't ensure unity either. The constant and often contentious wrangling of scholars and lawyers over the meaning of the Constitution suggests that its significance isn't always obvious, even after more than 200 years. And so far as the meaning of Lincoln's speeches goes, we still honor them because, even though in many cases his exact words continue to elude us, we do get the gist of what he said.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 13th 2009, 1:00 PM
Comment by: lisa A. (Oakland, CA)
I help coordinate a non-profit program that pairs writer coaches with students in public schools to help develop their writing and critical thinking skills. A glimpse at Lincoln's writing habits, reinforces what we often tell students--that writing is about rewriting. Number 16 has been on so many minds lately, it's intriguing to see the inner workings of the great orator's writing process and realize he was a faithful revisionist also.

Lisa A.
Oakland, CA
Friday February 13th 2009, 6:59 PM
Comment by: Anthony G. (Malverne, NY)
Mr. Baron-- Thank you for your gift-article on "Lincoln the writer at 200." The piece underscores the process of writing which gives birth to ideas and nuance. The magic emerges - flowing and adding continued color and power to our thinking. Writing transforms thought-- and thought drives writing. The process is one. Sincerely, Anthony
Monday February 16th 2009, 11:55 PM
Comment by: Daniel G. (Hanover, MA)
Thank you for the piece on our President Lincoln. He was one of many. His struggles in life allowed him to realize the importance of what is just and what is reality. A man of his caliber resides in all of us, it is just getting to the root of understanding who we are that will help us to make this world a better place, however never being perfect. I speak on the tangent of who Lincoln was and what he made of his dreams, only because after reading this piece, I get a better perspective of how to improve on writing, and that it will never be perfectly on point, but just needs to convey a message we can all understand. In order to convey the message, just leave the meaning unambiguous and people will celebrate what your meaning is, for most listening will share than common purpose. Thanks for introducing this piece to us, it has created much thought, at least in my mind...Take care..

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