Choosing 150 “most teachable” Lincoln documents is necessarily subjective and involves tough trade-offs and plenty of second-guessing. No single list can encompass everybody’s favorite Lincoln documents or take into account each different type of classroom. So we asked participants in the Understanding Lincoln online course to suggest some alternative choices (or “Alt Lincoln Documents”) that editor Matthew Pinsker might have included in his rankings. The only limitation was that the documents had to come from Lincoln’s Collected Works. Some of these suggested alternatives are featured below, but note that we’ve also left the Comments section open at the bottom of this page. Feel free to suggest your own selections, or perhaps revised “rankings” for the existing documents.
The Alt Lincoln Short List
- Speech at Springfield, June 26, 1857 (Greg O’Reilly)
- Speech at New Haven, March 6, 1860 (Jeffrey Ponkratz)
- Letter to Ephraim and Phoebe Ellsworth, May 25, 1861 (Meg Thompson)
- Letters to Eliza P. Gurney, Oct. 26, 1862, Sep. 4, 1864 (Mary Beth Donnelly)
- Telegram to General Ulysses Grant, August 3, 1864 (Matthew Pinsker)
From Greg O’Reilly:
Speech at Springfield, June 26, 1857
There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races; and Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself. If he can, by much drumming and repeating, fasten the odium of that idea upon his adversaries, he thinks he can struggle through the storm. He therefore clings to this hope, as a drowning man to the last plank. He makes an occasion for lugging it in from the opposition to the Dred Scott decision. He finds the Republicans insisting that the Declaration of Independence includes ALL men, black as well as white; and forth-with he boldly denies that it includes negroes at all, and proceeds to argue gravely that all who contend it does, do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes! He will have it that they cannot be consistent else. Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others. (Abraham Lincoln, June 26, 1857)
Abraham Lincoln’s speech given in Springfield on June 26, 1857 is an overlooked speech often overshadowed by more well-known public comments and addresses, especially by the towering amount of academic material found in the Lincoln-Douglas debates that took place one year later. But considering that the June 26th Address was Lincoln’s first formal statement in public regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott Case and its impact for African Americans, this is a significant work. What separates this address from other Lincoln primary documents is its length, which is uncharacteristically long, and the variety of topics addressed, which ranged from the Utah War to the events of Bleeding Kansas to the Dred Scott Decision to Lincoln’s belief in racial equality and racial amalgamation. That latter facet provides a greater significance when historians consider this address as a fore-runner to the vaunted 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Focusing this document through the lens of Lincoln’s views of the changing state of racial equality and the Declaration of Independence allows for two valuable questions to be addressed. The first is what was the significance of Lincoln’s emphasis on the Declaration of Independence? Considering Lincoln’s history and success as a lawyer, he was known for focusing more on the founding document of American principles than the Constitution, the founding document of American law. The second question is how did Abraham Lincoln define his views on racial equality? The common American often possesses an established historical narrative of Abraham Lincoln from popular culture and superficial study as the “Great Emancipator;” a man who freed the slaves and believed that all were created perfectly equal. However, from studying primary source documents in which Lincoln addressed the issues of racial equality it is clear that he possessed a nuanced and complex set of views in order to reconcile the pugnacious waters of Illinois racial politics and his own view about what it meant to a citizen with natural rights in America. [For more from Greg O’Reilly, check out this page on his website, Lincoln on Inequality].
From Jeffrey Ponkratz:
Speech at New Haven, March 6, 1860
I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! [Applause.] I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition —when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! (Abraham Lincoln, March 6, 1860)
Lincoln’s ability to understand and relate to his audiences was unique and wonderfully exemplified in his speech at New Haven, Connecticut on March 6, 1860. In tailoring his stump speech to the plight of New England’s laborers, Lincoln provides us insight into his fundamental beliefs on equality, justice and freedom. The New Haven speech also allows us a glimpse of his future actions regarding emancipation and the constitutional abolition of slavery New Haven provides Lincoln scholars a significant piece to the puzzle regarding his personal and America’s growth.
Lincoln made an East Coast swing to take his case to easterners in the months prior to the 1860 election. Though his Cooper Union speech in New York is rightfully seen as the game changer in Lincoln gaining needed regional credibility, what interests me is that his stump speech continued to expand and evolve in subsequent presentations. As an example, I’m fascinated in the way Lincoln adapted his comments to his target audience in New Haven just one week later. There are several similarities in each speech as might be expected. Most important, he denounces the notion of popular sovereignty, essentially refuting Douglas’ “middle ground” or “don’t care” policy. In each speech he condemns slavery as being immoral and adamantly opposes its expansion into the territories. In each speech he lauds the intent of the Framers and lays out the case for why the Federal government had the authority to limit slavery’s expansion into territories. In each speech he speaks rationally and relies on facts as opposed to emotion and passion. In each speech he speaks respectfully to Southerners.
One aspect that separates the New Haven speech from the one at Cooper Union is the emphasis on the American Dream. in the New Haven speech, Lincoln advocates that all men should have the freedom to work hard and prosper, to experience the fruits of their labor. He links the struggle of the slaves to the struggle of the factory workers in the Lynn, Massachusetts shoe factories. He stated, “Now be it understood that I do not pretend to know all about the matter. I am merely going to speculate a little about some of its phases. And at the outset, I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers CAN strike when they want to [Cheers,] where they are not obliged to work under all circumstances, and are not tied down and obliged to labor whether you pay them or not! [Cheers.] I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere. [Tremendous applause.]” Then he added, speaking of his own experience, “When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son!”
In this one insightful paragraph, Lincoln praises the striking factory workers for standing against oppression, connects with their work ethic to his rise from obscurity and then links their opportunities with the need to free slaves. He transforms the voters’ perspective regarding free labor by observing, “I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition – –when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”
From Meg Thompson:
Letter to Ephraim and Phoebe Ellsworth, May 25, 1861
In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. (Abraham Lincoln, May 25, 1861)
An excellent way to help students understand a historical figure is to show him or her acting just like a “real” person, doing things a parent, a friend, or a spouse would do. Abraham Lincoln has left many letters and documents that show him interacting with others. One of the most teachable is his letter to the mother and father of 24-year old Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the American Civil War.
The reaction to this event was national in scope. Many northern newspapers reported on his death and Ellsworth’s body lay in state in the White House, as was on public display in New York City, Albany, and finally Mechanicville, NY where Ellsworth was buried. However, Lincoln’s letter to the northern martyr’s parents help bring this early wartime tragedy back into human proportions.
Lincoln had met Ellsworth in Springfield, Illinois, and was so impressed with his character and charisma that he asked him to study law in the Lincoln-Herndon office. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Ellsworth and one of Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay, became good friends as they made the rounds of local events, making stump speeches for candidate Lincoln. When Lincoln went to cast his own vote at the courthouse in Springfield, Ellsworth walked by his side. He traveled to Washington, D. C. with the Lincoln family on the inaugural train.
When Abraham Lincoln learned of his friend’s death, he was overcome with emotion. No one had ever seen Lincoln cry in public before, but according to a report that appeared on May 25, 1861 in the New York Herald, the president told others without apology that he was “unmanned with grief” by the news. Both Abraham and Mary Lincoln went to the Navy Yard to see young Ellsworth’s body, which was then brought to the White House. Indeed, their “affliction . . . [was] scarcely less” than that of Ellsworth’s parents. Lincoln’s sympathy with the very human sorrow of losing one’s child, and the close reliance on God, are evident in this sad, yet soothing letter. In very few words Lincoln captured Ellsworth’s personality, never forgetting how much it would mean to grieving parents. Lincoln himself had been such a parent, and would be soon again.
This letter, written just a day after the death of Elmer Ellsworth, can easily serve as a model for the many letters that would need to be written in the next four years. Ellsworth’s death was the first of so many. When Abraham Lincoln is viewed as Father Abraham, it is this letter that so poignantly clarifies his role as father to the soldiers under his command.
Listen to a podcast close reading of the Ellsworth letter by Meg Thompson:
From Mary Beth Donnelly:
Letters to Eliza P. Gurney, October 26, 1862 and September 4, 1864
I am glad of this interview, and glad to know that I have your sympathy and prayers. We are indeed going through a great trial—a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes… (Abraham Lincoln, October 26, 1862)
I am much indebted to the good christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations; and to no one of them, more than to yourself. The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. (Abraham Lincoln, September 4, 1864)
Because Lincoln did not keep a diary, publish memoirs, or easily reveal how he felt, he can be hard to research. We think we know him because he is ubiquitous and iconic, but do we really understand Lincoln, the man, and the myriad of forces that shaped his presidential decision making? Particularly on personal matters, including faith and religion, Lincoln was a hard person to get to know—even for those who knew him best.
Lincoln’s letters to Eliza Gurney, a Quaker woman, reveal a more personal side of Lincoln than do many of his speeches, memoranda, or proclamations. For this reason, these letters are critically important documents that deserve another look. First, Lincoln’s correspondence with Gurney sheds light on his moral philosophy, context which helps us better understand his motivations, challenges, and actions as president. Moreover, Lincoln’s letters to Gurney provides the reader with an insider’s view of the constant strain he faced as Commander in Chief during the Civil War. While photos certainly reveal the physical toll the Presidency took, Lincoln’s letters to Gurney let us hear in his own words how he tried to cope with that strain—as a man saddled with the enormous and unprecedented responsibility of leading a United States at war with itself.
In addition to giving us a window into his inner thoughts, Lincoln’s letters to Gurney also provided him with an outlet to articulate his ongoing exploration of faith and his evolving understanding of God’s will. Several phrases and themes, first expressed as musings to Gurney, later emerged on a grander scale in his public speeches. For example, in his first reply to Gurney, Lincoln describes the Civil War as “a fiery trial.” He would later use this phrase, a Biblical reference, in his annual address to Congress in December 1862 where he famously stated, “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” Likewise, Lincoln’s correspondence with Gurney seemed to mark his transition from a private expression of his personal faith (as evidenced by the undated “Meditation on the Divine Will” discovered after his death) to a public exploration of God’s will. Much of his moral philosophy, initially expressed to Gurney, would reach its climax in his legendary Second Inaugural Address.
Lincoln’s letters to Eliza P. Gurney give readers a more complete picture of his resilience under stress and his moral thinking, issues that he often kept hidden. These letters also show us the steps that Lincoln, a speech writer without equal, took in order to articulate his theology—months before he made these views public. Currently excluded from the “Top 150” documents at the House Divided web site, both Lincoln’s first and second replies to Eliza P. Gurney (October 26, 1862 and September 4, 1864, respectively) deserve greater recognition in the canon of Lincoln’s essential documents.
For more details, see Mary Beth Donnelly’s close reading of Lincoln’s first letter to Gurney (October 26, 1862), via Quora.
From Matthew Pinsker:
Telegram to General Grant, August 3, 1864
Cypher. Office U. S. Military Telegraph,
Lieut. Genl. Grant War Department,
City-Point, Va. Washington, D. C.,
August 3, 1864.
I have seen your despatch in which you say “I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself South of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.” This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move. But please look over the despatches you may have receved from here, even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here, of “putting our army South of the enemy'” or of following him to the death” in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.
It’s more than a little awkward for the editor of the collection to add an “alt” document, but the truth is that after building this website, I realized that I had omitted several documents that I routinely describe as essential for understanding Lincoln’s leadership style. The telegram to Grant above is perhaps the most important of these confidential notes, one that included the phrase, “watch it every day, and hour, and force it,” which I described in a 2014 piece as his essential “leadership advice.”