Contributing Editors for this page include Susan Segal and Cynthia Smith
#34 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
On This Date
How Historians Interpret
“Lincoln’s most important task was to define the issue in terms that would bring home the tremendous importance of victory. His message to Congress gave him the finest possible opportunity for a wide hearing. After describing the outbreak of hostilities he struck the chord he wanted, one which, elaborated to perfection, he was to sound again in the Gettysburg Address two years later… This special message of July 4, 1861—which is not nearly so well known as it deserves to be—illustrates several of Lincoln’s traits as a thinker and a literary artist. One of these was the slow, gradual development of an idea. It was characteristic that the central idea of the passage I have just quoted should be repeated in the Gettysburg Address, for Lincoln habitually revolved an idea in his mind until it stood in exactly the right relation to the body of his thought. It was thus with the Cooper Union speech, the theme of which was first stated in 1854, and recurred to again and again until it reached its final development nearly six years later. And as such an idea was repeated, the sentences by which it was expressed were shaped and shifted and polished until they became the smooth fitting parts of a perfect entity. Another trait was the use of expressions, no matter how homely, which conveyed his exact meaning. Referring, in this special message, to those Southerners who had given the color of legality to secession, he said that “with rebellion thus sugar-coated” they had drugged the conscience of their section. The public printer objected to the phrase ‘sugar-coated’ on the ground that it lacked the dignity proper to a state paper. Lincoln replied that he would alter it if he could be convinced that the time would ever come when the people would not know the meaning of sugar-coated— otherwise he would let it remain.”
— Paul M. Angle, “Lincoln’s Power with Words,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 3, no. 2 (1981), 8-27.
“In July, Lincoln told Congress that it was “worthy of note, that while in this, the government’s hour of trial, large numbers of those in the Army and Navy, who have been favored with the offices, have resigned, and proved false to the hand which had pampered them, not one common soldier, or common sailor is known to have deserted his flag. Great honor is due to those officers who remain true, despite the example of their treacherous associates; but the greatest honor, and most important fact of all is, the unanimous firmness of the common soldiers and common sailors. To the last man, so far as known, they have successfully resisted the traitorous efforts of those, whose commands, but an hour before, they obeyed as absolute law. This is the patriotic instinct of the plain people. They understand, without an argument, that destroying the government, which was made by Washington, means no good to them.”(Actually, twenty-six enlisted men resigned to join the Confederacy.)”
— Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript by Chapter, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 2, Chapter 23 (PDF), 2433-2434.
NOTE TO READERS
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