Martha Shurburtt Bohnenberger
Lincoln as Writer – Revisionist
Martha Bohnenberger
2nd Close Reading
Farewell Address (February 11, 1861)
           No one would argue the fact that Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest of all American writers. He is recognized as such because his ideas that he put to pen and paper in his speeches are so universally recognized and remembered that they seem to be engraved into the minds of most Americans.[1]
            However, his writings were not the most celebrated speeches of his time. Looking at the great political orators of the early 1800s, Webster, Calhoun, and Clay, who could all rouse the crowds into a raging storm; theirs were the notable speeches talked about in every parlor. But their words lost this power when put to paper in the years to come. Lincoln’s style was different; he avoided the flowery oratory of the times and instead cultivated a plainer and more direct approach to writing. This is the reason for their verbal vitality and why they have endured the test of time.[2]
          These great orators of the time were thought to be superior to Lincoln in education, most had been sent to the finest universities. Lincoln however, stated that there, “was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education,” where he had grown up and that by the age of twenty-one “somehow I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all.”[3] As late as 1862, as he sat in the White House in a roomful of visitors, “writing a note on a card held on his knee,” when he “sung out ‘How d’ye spell missill’ – meaning ‘missile’ – ‘I don’t know how to spell it.’”[4]This does not sound like the silver tongued orator of the House Divided Speech or the Gettysburg Address. So, how did this uneducated country bumpkin, as Lincoln himself professed to be at 20, “…Of  course when I came of age I did not know much– Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three, but that was all– I have not been to school since– The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I havehave picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity–…”[5]become a rival and surpass the great orators of the first half of the 19th Century?
          First, Abraham Lincoln was a brilliant person with a high IQ, who self-educated himself.[6] Lincoln also stated in his second autobiography to John Scripps, “He was never in a college or Academy as a student; and never inside of a college or accademy building till since he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up. After he was twentythree, and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the Six-books of Euclid, since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.”[7]
Secondly, through just plain perseverance! “…many of the presidential writings for which Lincoln is best known-the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural-were formulations of ideas and positions that were not immediately popular. That they eventually came to be widely admired and even venerated is a tribute to Lincoln’s rare combination of leadership and literary ability. Some of his most important speeches and messages in the Library of Congress have multiple versions, which show the stages of revisions and his writing technique.[8]“His surviving personal papers attest that he was, from the time he began to preserve then in 1840s, a careful and conscientious draftsman, who knew the value of revision.”[9]He rewrote several revisions until he had his writing the way he wanted it to sound. Robert Lincoln later in life, sent a correspondent this view of his father’s excerptions at writing, “In writing a careful letter, he first wrote it himself, then corrected it, and then rewrote the corrected version himself.” Many of the documents in the Lincoln collection at the Library of Congress are not finished copies, but rather as Robert described them, handwritten drafts that his father produced, showing the changes and revisions made in the process of composition. Lincoln would later copy the finished text and send the fair copies to the recipients.[10]
         “Rewriting is the essence of writing well – where the game is won or lost.” – William Zinsser[11]
         “… Overwhelming evidence supports the belief that writers at various ages and various levels of competence mainly make surface and mechanical revisions, often revealing a view of revision as proofreading…’[12]This was the view of editing all throughout the 19th Century. “Early views of revision… were confined to sentence-leveled polishing, or what today might be termed editing. The conception of revision as error correction lingered for many centuries.”[13]There is also “…a plethora of evidence that suggests that older and/or more competent writers tend to do more revising for meaning and make more sentence- and theme- level changes than do younger and /or less competent writers.”[14] Lincoln was more typical of the 20th Century approach to writing. It was not until then that education in writing techniques such as revision as tool to enhance creativity and meaning came about.[15]
        This method of revision for meaning and theme can be seen in his Peoria Speech of which the historian Albert J. Beveridge wrote of Lincoln, “He had studied the debates in Congress, and as we have seen, Douglas’s speech in the senate had been printed in pamphlet form as well as published in the newspapers. For weeks Lincoln had spent toilsome hours in the State Library, searching trustworthy histories, analyzing the Census, mastering the facts, reviewing the literature of the subject. In his office he had written fragments on government and scraps of arguments against slavery, obviously trying to clarify his reasoning before submitting his text, carefully edited, for serial publication which was in seven installments to the Illinois State Journal.[16] Another of his well-known writings Gettysburg Address has 5 known versions, which show the editing process of Lincoln. Lastly, Lincoln’s Farewell Speech of 1860, which is to be discussed here, has 3 known revised versions.
            Lincoln’s Farewell Speech was given inside the Great Western Railway station, just prior to his departure to Washington to assume his duty as President. It was given as a goodbye to his “family” in Springfield. As he shook hands with people who had come to see him off in that early morning drizzling rain, his friends who had supported him throughout his career, he was said to be pale and emotional and was almost not able to speak. He had said he would not make any remarks at the train station. However, he went into the train car and soon returned to give the emotionally charged “Farewell Speech.” These “few and simple words” were reported in many newspapers the next day (possibly Version A or B or something similar to either). The difficulty in knowing exactly what Lincoln said that day, also arises in the fact that Lincoln’s secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay published a different text of Lincoln’s handwritten speech in 1887, which was quite different from the newspaper accounts. (Version C)[17] It is not only important because it shows Lincoln’s talent to revise his writings, but also as a statement of the feelings that he had formed for the people of Springfield.

This image is the last photograph of Lincoln in Springfield. It was taken just two days before he left Springfield for Washington, February 9, 1861.[18]
[A. Version]

February 11, 1861
My friends---No one,   not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To   this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have   lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man.   Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing   when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that   which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being,   who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.   Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where   for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care   commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an   affectionate farewell

[B. Version]

My Friends:
No one not in my   position can appreciate the sadness I feel at this parting. To this people I   owe all that I am. Here I have lived more than a quarter of a century; here   my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. I know not how soon   I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater   than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington.   He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon   which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same   Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my   reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may   receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which   success is certain. Again I bid you an affectionate farewell.

[C. Version]

No one who has never   been placed in a like position, can understand my feelings at this hour, nor   the oppressive sadness I feel at this parting. For more than a quarter of a   century I have lived among you, and during all that time I have received   nothing but kindness at your hands. Here I have lived from my youth until now   I am an old man. Here the most sacred ties of earth were assumed; here all my   children were born; and here one of them lies buried. To you, dear friends, I   owe all that I have, all that I am.
All the strange,   chequered past seems to crowd now upon my mind. To-day I leave you; I go to   assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General   Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him, shall be with and aid me,   I must fail. But if the same omniscient mind, and Almighty arm that directed   and protected him, shall guide and support me, I shall not fail, I shall   succeed. Let us all pray that the God of our fathers may not forsake us now.   To him I commend you all---permit me to ask that with equal security and   faith, you all will invoke His wisdom and guidance for me. With these few   words I must leave you---for how long I know not. Friends, one and all, I   must now bid you an affectionate farewell.


( Illinois     State Historical Library )
In this drawing from a collection at     the Illinois State Historical Library, President Abraham Lincoln stands on     the rear of a Great Western Railway Train in the station in Springfield,     Ill. on Feb. 10, 1861, en route to Washington D.C.
What Lincoln’s actually words were on that day is hard to say, newspaper accounts vary and the draft written on that day in Lincoln’s own hand and that of his secretary, John Nicolay, is believed from testimony to have been written not before the speech but after the speech on the train. This can be shown by a comparison between newspaper accounts and reports or the audience being close to tears with exclamations of, “We will do it; we will do it” or “Loud applause and cries of, ‘We will pray for you”, referring to the request for prayers by Lincoln. However, in the manuscript text (version C) this request is muted and blended into the final sentence. “Lincoln knew from long experience that addressing a live audience is very different from addressing readers on the page…A speaker can gauge its (audience) mood and receptiveness and can take immediate advantage of its reactions.” A writer on the other hand relies on other devices. Lincoln sensed this emotion in the audience and the appeal for prayer was spontaneous. However, he in version C, seemed to realize that for readers, who were not in this emotional state, the situation would not be the same. Lincoln’s final text (version C) is not a reiteration of the speech he gave to his “family” of Springfield, but a reshaped and reconstituted version for readers.[19]
Lincoln time and again shows his quality as a good writer; he is a seasoned practitioner in the art of revision. In looking at some of the differences between versions, you can see Lincoln makes his spirit felt, for not only an emotionally pact crowd but also for readers for centuries to come.
Lincoln was a very skilled and competent writer, not because he could spew out polished speeches off the cuff, but because he, almost a century before it was a common practice with writers, revised repeatedly until he reached his goal. Lincoln definitely would be a competent writer, even with the handicap of his childhood language skills[20]and lack of education, which at times showed itself as in the line from, the House divided speech,“He don't care anything about it.” Lincoln’s speeches as the writings of Shakespeare have stood the test of time because they are written for the common man. This is why his speeches have been engraved on the hearts of so many over the last century and a half.
Burlingame, Michael; Chapter 2; Abraham Lincoln: A Life; Unedited Manuscript by Chapters,      abraham-lincoln-a-life.html
Drawing from a collection at the Illinois State Historical Library Illinois State Historical             Library Mr. Lincoln goes to Washington
Fitzgerald, Jill; Research on Revision in Writing; Review of Educational Research; Vol. 57, No.    4 (Winter, 1987), pp. 481-506; Published by: American Educational Research             Association; Page on Jstor
Lincoln Photograph; by C. S. German; February 9, 1861; Library of Congress
Shavinina, Larisa; Chapter 1: Highly Gifted Young People: Development from Childhood to                       Adulthood; International Handbook on Giftedness, Edition 1; Springer-Verlag New                  York, LLC 2009
Wilson, Douglas L.; Lincoln’s Sword, The Presidency and the Power of Words.
Zinsser, William; On Writing Well, Internet Archive;            On Writing Well : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive

[1] Wilson, Douglas L.; Lincoln the Writer; Great Lincoln Documents; Gilder Lehrman, NY,NY 2009
[3]Burlingame, Michael; Abraham Lincoln: A Life
[5] Autobiographical Sketch (December 20, 1859)
[6] Shavinina, Larisa; Chapter 1: Highly Gifted Young People
[7] Autobiography Written for John Scripps (June 1, 1860)
[8] Wilson, Douglas L.; Lincoln’s Sword, The Presidency and the Power of Words.
[9] ibid
[10] Wilson, Douglas L.; Lincoln’s Sword, The Presidency and the Power of Words.
[11]Zinsser, William; On Writing Well, Internet Archive; On Writing Well : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive
[13] Burlingame, Michael; Abraham Lincoln: A Life
[15] Ibid
[16] Lehrman, Lewis. Lincoln at Peoria. (Stackhold Books, 2008). 33.
[17] Wilson, Douglas L.; Lincoln’s Sword, The Presidency and the Power of Words.
[18]Lincoln Photograph; by C. S. German; February 9, 1861; Library of Congress
[19] Wilson, Douglas L.; Lincoln’s Sword, The Presidency and the Power of Words.
[20] Wikipedia -Appalachian English