Migrating from his birthplace in Kentucky,first to Indiana and then to Illinois, where he helped to clear the unbroken forest, Abraham Lincoln was one of America’s greatest pioneers. Shackled by poverty and lack of education, his indomitable will first broke his own fetters and then those of the slave. History claims him as her own, but some of the plain, sincere, strong English that fell from his lips while he was making history demands attention as literature. Passing by his great debates with Douglas (1858), not because they are unimportant, but because they belong more to the domain of politics and history, we come to his _Gettysburg Address_ (1863), which is one of the three greatest American orations. In England, Oxford University displays on its walls this _Address_ as a model to show students how much can be said simply and effectively in two hundred and sixty-nine words. Edward Everett, a graduate of Harvard, called the most eloquent man of his time, also spoke at Gettysburg, although few are to-day aware of this fact.
The question may well be asked, “How did Lincoln, who had less than one year’s schooling, learn the secret of such speech?” The answer will be found in the fixity of purpose and the indomitable will of the pioneer. When he was a boy, he seemed to realize that in order to succeed, he must talk and write plainly. As a lad, he used to practice telling things in such a way that the most ignorant person could understand them. In his youth he had only little scraps of paper or shingles on which to write, and so perforce learned the art of brevity. Only a few books were accessible to him, and he read and reread them until they became a part of him. The volumes that he thus absorbed were the _Bible_, _Aesop’s Fables_, _Arabian Nights_, _Robinson Crusoe_, _The Pilgrim’s Progress_, _Franklin’s Autobiography_, Weems’s _Life of Washington_, and two or three textbooks. Without such good reading, which served to guide his practice in writing and speaking, he could never have been President. Later in life he read Shakespeare, especially _Macbeth_.
Parts of his _Second Inaugural Address_ (1865) show even better than his _Gettysburg Address_ the influence of the _Bible_ on his thought and style. One reason why there is so much weak and ineffective prose written to-day is because books like the _Bible_ and _The Pilgrim’s Progress_ are not read and reread as much as formerly. Of the North and the South, he says in his _Second Inaugural_:–
“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered–that of neither has been answered fully….
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds….”
Absolute sincerity is the most striking quality in his masterpieces. Simplicity and brevity are next in evidence; to these are sometimes added the pathos and intensity of a Hebrew prophet.