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'Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation' on view at the Morgan Library & Museum
President Lincoln by Alexander Gardner. Washington, D.C., November 8, 1863.The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC 245.

NEW YORK, NY.- No U.S. president and few leaders of any time or place have commanded language with the skill of Abraham Lincoln. Largely self-taught, he achieved a mastery of the word that helped him win the presidency and define the true meaning of America’s founding principle of human equality. In his writings and speeches—many of which are woven into the historical fabric of America—he vigorously strove to defend the Union and the Constitution, while also salving the wounds of a country torn apart by civil war.

Now, in a new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum titled Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation, more than eighty items from his remarkable life—speeches, letters, legal writings, personal notes, and more—are being presented. Co-organized by the Morgan and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and on view from January 23 through June 7, the show includes not only well-known documents such as the Gettysburg Address, but a number of infrequently exhibited items that serve as powerful—and perhaps unexpected—reminders of the man behind the genius. Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of his assassination and the conclusion of the Civil War, visitors to the Morgan will see up-close how the most common of men reached uncommon heights of eloquence. The exhibition also includes a selection of photographs and artifacts from Lincoln’s time, as well as a short, in-gallery film that features contemporary writers and scholars sharing their personal views on his matchless gifts with language.

“Abraham Lincoln’s landmark writings and speeches are familiar to us all and their influence continues to this day, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world,” said Peggy Fogelman, acting director of the Morgan Library and Museum. “Lincoln Speaks presents these great works and the volatile, strife-ridden context around their creation. Importantly, however, it also highlights less renown items that offer valuable insight into the character and beliefs of the more private Lincoln. We are deeply grateful to the Gilder Lehrman Institute for partnering with us on this extraordinary exhibition.”

James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and Richard Gilder Professor of Literary History at Barnard College said, “Even for the Lincoln specialist and certainly for every American who cares about history, this is a must-see exhibition. The iconic Lincoln is here—the Cooper Union speech, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural Address—but even more importantly, so are some of the rarest and most revealing documents in Lincoln's hand—a note denying clemency to a slave trader sentenced to death, and the last letter he ever wrote to his wife, about the fall of Richmond. Parents will want to bring their children, teachers their students, but everybody will appreciate the hidden Lincoln whose words continue to resonate today.”

Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation is divided into nine sections. They explore Lincoln’s development as a writer and speaker, and his deft and compelling use of language to fit the many roles he took on as the country’s leader at a time of unparalleled crisis.

I. Sources of Lincoln’s Language
Abraham Lincoln penned his own speeches. He used words with a lawyer’s precision and a poet’s sense of rhythm, confident in their power to persuade an audience. Writing with great deliberation, he chose language that was spare, colorful, and accessible to all classes: it seemed to author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe that it had “the relish and smack of the soil.” As President he deployed ethical teaching, painstaking reason, and wry humor; he resisted easy demagoguery and personal abuse.

The works that gave Lincoln greatest pleasure also gave direction to his native talent. He read, re-read, and absorbed the poetic language of the King James translation of the Bible. He revered Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for their imagery, metrical rhythms, emotional range, and psychological perception; from memory he could recite long passages from the Bard’s tragedies and histories. He appreciated the political oratory of his Whig hero Henry Clay, studied Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and other legal texts, and mastered books of Euclidian logic: together these confirmed his preference for words that appealed to reason, not mere emotion. In his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Mortality”—beginning and ending “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”—Lincoln saw the power of rhythmic repetition. And in the comic thrusts of contemporary humorists and satirists such as Artemus Ward and David Ross Locke, he saw skill bordering on genius. All in all, Lincoln had no appetite for grandiloquence and pretension. Rather, he admired writing that was clear and cogent, and that, when spoken, was pleasing to the ear.

II. The Politician
Lincoln’s public career coincided with the maturing of a democratic, two-party system marked by boisterous campaigning and torrents of rhetoric. Whether working for his own election or others’, he showed an aptitude for the new politics and connected easily with the public. In the main he spoke extemporaneously, but he prepared notes for his most important speeches. His faith in the people’s intelligence and moral sense led him naturally to use logic and reason as means of persuasion. He despised the florid rhetoric associated with Daniel Webster and other celebrated Whig orators of the day, preferring a dry statement of his principal point in the clearest, simplest language. His great gift for colorful colloquialism and story telling cemented his appeal as an unaffected man of the people. Few could match him for the humorous tales that he used as parable, explanation, and analogy. When the grave issue of slavery’s expansion shook the political system during the 1850s, however, he reined in his humor and surprised many by his ethical seriousness. A colleague remarked that, when thoroughly roused, Lincoln “would come out with an earnestness of conviction, a power of argument, a wealth of illustration, that I have never seen surpassed.”

III. National Leader
One of Lincoln's greatest achievements was his articulation of a rationale for the Civil War and its almost unthinkable sacrifices, shaped to inspire loyal Unionists. His leadership rested far less on coercion than on his faith in what he described as “the power of the right word from the right man to develop the latent fire and enthusiasm of the masses.” Obtaining an audience with the president was much easier for mid-nineteenth century citizens. As president, however, he had only limited time for preparing substantial speeches. He spoke in public nearly one hundred times, but generally his remarks were modest and often unscripted. They included short addresses to troops, impromptu responses to well wishers who came to 'serenade' him, and statements to visiting delegations – of clergymen, border-state representatives, free blacks, and others.

Exceptions to this general rule included the two most celebrated speeches of his presidency, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural: significantly, they were his pithiest. For these reasons Lincoln relied less on the spoken than the written word. Most effective of all were his carefully crafted and widely circulated public letters. He skillfully designed each to rally support on an issue crucial to the prosecution of the war: emancipation and racial issues, conscription, and military arrests and the suspension of habeas corpus.

IV. The Emancipator
Lincoln felt strongly the injustice of slavery. “I am naturally anti-slavery,” he wrote in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Yet he was careful never to describe it as a sin: southerners were the victims of their particular circumstances. During the first year of the war, to avoid alarming slave-owning loyalists in Kentucky and other border states, he had to be especially cautious when addressing slavery’s future. Union military setbacks during the first half of 1862 led Lincoln to take the radical step he called “indispensable” to national salvation. In the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22 he pointedly used dry, legalistic language to declare – as Commander-in-Chief, guided by the Constitution – that those held as slaves in still rebellious areas on 1 January 1863 “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln thereafter fashioned a more jeweled language to place emancipation within the ethical purposes of the war. African Americans were implicit in his commitment at Gettysburg to “a new birth of freedom.” When, in 1865, states began to ratify the emancipation amendment to the Constitution, he lauded this “King's cure for all the evils.”

V. Healing a Nation
Lincoln was a kindly man, who by his own estimate probably had “too little” of the feeling of personal resentment: “a man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels,” he reflected. He saw the irony that, as someone who did not bear a grudge, he had found himself at the center of so profound a conflict. Lincoln’s lifelong belief in American national destiny and common purpose, however, led him to sanction an intensification of the war after the summer of 1862. It could no longer be fought, he said, “with elder stalk squirts charged with rosewater.” His emancipation policy marked the end of conciliation, led to a developing assault on the South's people and economy, and prompted deep hostility in parts of the North. As the end of this “hard war” approached, Lincoln sought to heal the wounds. At his second inauguration, with the Confederacy now speedily crumbling, he called for a magnanimous post-war reconciliation. The crowd had expected the language of triumph; instead, his words avoided blame, spoke inclusively, emphasized the shared experience of – and God’s judgment on – both sides in the conflict, and urged “with malice towards none” no vengeance on the South. Of all Lincoln’s words, these make claim to be the most transformative.

VI. Commander-in-Chief
Lincoln was not a natural warrior nor had he any real military training. Like many other of his pursuits, he had to teach himself about command. As a lawyer, he knew how to draft lucid and cogent directions. Similarly, as commander-in-chief he was uncompromisingly clear in laying out military strategy. When the security of Washington DC was threatened in 1861, Lincoln erupted at the bureaucratic delay in organizing and moving troops and angrily ordered General Charles Russell to send troops to Fort Monroe 180 miles from the capital, where they could easily be transported to the capital by water. “I want you to cut the Knots and send them right along.” Lincoln's words circulated in the military camps through publications that addressed the troops. He also spoke to many volunteers individually. They admired the common touch of a president who lacked airs and graces, remained approachable, and mixed kindliness with good humor, jokes, and easy familiarity.

VII. Lincoln Among Friends
In the course of his career Lincoln made many political and legal acquaintances; with some of these he established close working relationships. His engaging conversation, capacious memory, and skill in story telling made him entertaining company: more often than not he was the center of a crowd. As a personally private and self-reliant man, however, he had few intimate friends. Although his family provided emotional sustenance, his relations with his father were strained, his marriage to Mary was not always easy, and there was little intimacy with his eldest son, Robert. Lincoln’s surviving writings show a guarded man. Even so, his private correspondence offers revealing insight into his beliefs and fundamental character. In the midst of the contentious 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln paused to write a letter of consolation to a friend of his son Robert, George C. Latham, who had been denied admission to Harvard. Lincoln encouraged him to reapply saying, “It is a certain truth that you can enter and graduate in Harvard University; and having made the attempt, you must succeed in it. “Must” is the word.” The letter is revealing as it could also apply to Lincoln’s approach to making the most of his own life, which, as with the young student, was full of aspirational disappointment.

VIII. Lincoln in the Eyes of the World
Lincoln’s horizons stretched across the nineteenth-century world. Deeming the Union the “last, best hope of earth,” he defined the Civil War as more than an American crisis. The struggle presented “to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic … can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.” Equally, the fight to end American slavery was part of a universal struggle between liberty and tyranny, social progress and lethargy. Lincoln’s words in public and private encouraged progressives abroad to cast him as the embodiment of democratic freedom and modernity. His cruel death prompted a worldwide outpouring of grief. Grown men wept in the streets of European cities. Poet Walt Whitman wrote the elegy O Captain! My Captain! in his honor. The U.S. State Department was overwhelmed by a blizzard of grieving tributes from every continent. Foreign biographies suggest the extent of Lincoln’s global reach. By 1900, he had become the subject of usually admiring works published in German, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Danish, Welsh, Hebrew, Russian, Norwegian, Finnish, Turkish, Swedish, and Japanese; over the next quarter-century the list grew to embrace lives in Polish, Chinese, Czech, Arabic, Hungarian, Persian, Slovak, Armenian, and Korean. Variously seen as emancipator, nation-builder, defender of representative government, and self-made common man, Lincoln was a worldwide hero.

IX. A Man for All Time
Lincoln’s words have lived on through their own intrinsic power. American political leaders, poets, playwrights, novelists, literary critics, theologians, journalists, and others have been inspired, challenged, and sometimes affronted by his sentiments. Lincoln has also spoken – and continues to speak – to peoples across the world. Karl Marx judged him “the single-minded son of the working class.” Tomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, drew strength as “the Lincoln of Central Europe.” Racially mixed, republican “Lincoln brigades” fought in the Spanish Civil War. Mohandas Gandhi recognized in Lincoln a model of nonviolence. In Britain during the Second World War his words stiffened resolve, while in Germany during the subsequent Cold War West Berliners deployed Lincoln as a symbol of anticommunism and self-determination. At the same time, Ghanaians used him to legitimize liberation from British colonial rule and then to justify the new state’s use of massive force against internal enemies. Recently, Desmond Tutu accepted the Lincoln Leadership Prize for his role in national reconciliation in South Africa. “Now he belongs to the ages,” whispered the grieving Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, when Lincoln breathed his last. His words could scarcely have been more prescient.

Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation is accompanied by a short in-gallery film featuring former President Bill Clinton and a group of celebrated authors and scholars. The film addresses various aspects of Lincoln’s remarkable life and legacy, ranging from his formative years in Illinois to the evolution of his attitudes towards race to his unmatched place in American history as the nation’s most transformative president.

In addition to President Clinton, others appearing in the film include Edna Greene Medford, a notable scholar of the Civil War era and chair of the history department at Howard University; Tony Kushner, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright and the scriptwriter for the award-winning 2012 movie, Lincoln; Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and author and coeditor of the eleven volume The Young Oxford History of African Americans; Harold Holzer, one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and chair of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, and Jerome Charyn, celebrated author whose recent novel, I Am Abraham, received wide critical acclaim.

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