Lincoln and Language – Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Take

Ralph Waldo Emerson
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He knew how to turn a phrase,” my wife said to me one day as we discussed a passage in one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.

That stopped me cold.

Succinctly phrasing complicated thoughts, but in a way that gets at the depth of something, is one of the myriad reasons I love my wife. That was one of those examples.

Lincoln was such a prolific writer – letters, speeches, poems, fragments of thoughts, newspaper articles, (even the flyleaf of his copybook) – that it takes eight volumes to hold all of his works! [1].

But volume isn’t what made Lincoln’s writing so often quoted or studied, it was his ability, as my wife said, ‘to turn a phrase.’

Lincoln, however, didn’t share her opinion. [Bolding is mine.]

[Judge Douglas said] this speech of mine was probably carefully prepared. I admit that it was. I am not master of language; I have not a fine education; I am not capable of entering into a disquisition upon dialectics, as I believe you call it;…I know what I meant, and I will not leave this crowd in doubt, if I can explain it… [2]

Contrary to Lincoln’s humble opinion of his ability as a wordsmith, we’ve all read, quoted, studied, or heard many parts and pieces of his writings and speeches. He definitely was a ‘master of language.”

No less a literary giant than Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed:

He is the author of a multitude of good sayings, so disguised as pleasantries that it is certain they had no reputation at first but as jests; and only later, by the very acceptance and adoption they find in the mouths of millions, turn out to be the wisdom of the hour. [3]

His accolades for Lincoln’s prowess with words wasn’t confined to just Lincoln’s stories. “But the weight and penetration of many passages in his letters, messages and speeches,” Emerson sagely predicted, “are destined hereafter to wide fame.”

“With malice toward none, with charity for all…”

What made Abraham Lincoln’s words so much different from other presidents’?

Emerson attributed it to a combination of components. “What pregnant definitions; what unerring common sense; what foresight; and, on great occasion, what lofty, and more than national, what humane tone!”

So, the Man made the words eh?

My wife was right – as usual.

Food for thought.


Works CIted

[1] Abraham Lincoln Association: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

[2] “Speech at Chicago – July 10,1858.” Abraham Lincoln Association: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. v.II:p.492.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1904). “Remarks at the Funeral Services Held in Concord, April 19, 1865.” in Vol. XI “Miscellanies – Abraham Lincoln.” The Complete Worksof Ralph Waldo Emerson, with a Biographical Introduction and Notes by Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, MA & New York City, NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.


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