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  • Lincoln the writer at 200: the statesman and orator constantly revised his prose

    The opening of the first draft of the Gettysburg Address
    The opening of the first draft of the Gettysburg Address

    It's the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, or to mix 19th- with 21st-century styles, the man whom CNN and Time would call "16" was born ten score years ago today.

    Lincoln's Birthday is a day that used to be a school holiday, a day to honor Lincoln the emancipator, Lincoln the orator, and Lincoln the martyr separate from Presidents Day, a holiday which serves as little more than an excuse to go out and buy stuff  – and so toadd to the many celebrations of Lincoln on this bicentennial anniversary, we might also consider one of his lesser-known qualities: according to Douglas L. Wilson, Abraham Lincoln was a constant reviser of his own prose.

    For example, the Library of Congress manuscript collection has three versions of the Gettysburg Address. The "first draft," also called the "Nicolay draft," because Lincoln gave that copy to one of his two private secretaries, John Nicolay, was written on two pieces of paper – a piece of executive mansion stationery and a sheet of lined note paper. It may or may not have been the copy Lincoln read from at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, but it contains one autograph correction at the bottom of the page:

    An emended excerpt of the first draft of the Address 

    Bottom of the first page of the first draft, showing a change Lincoln made

    Lincoln changed the original "It is rather for us, the living, to stand here" to, "It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us."

    The "second draft," also called the "Hay draft" because Lincoln gave that copy to his other secretary, John Hay, was further revised with interlinear corrections and it silently changes some of the first draft wording: "It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on."

    Excerpt from the second draft 

    The second draft of the Gettysburg Address shows more changes

    And the version carved on the Lincoln Memorial uses still different wording: "It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

    Excerpt of inscription on Lincoln Memorial

    Transcription of the Gettysburg Address on the Lincoln Memorial, showing further changes to the wording 

    Not only does the text of the various versions of the Gettysburg Address differ, but it's also likely that none of them records the exact words that Lincoln said when he delivered his speech.

    Wilson claims that Lincoln was a careful speech reader, that he even read out versions of letters to his staff, to friends, and to the cabinet not to get their feedback – he apparently didn't ask for corrections or suggestions – but to clarify the wording in his own mind. But when they make their speeches, all politicians stray from their prepared remarks, misreading here, ad libbing there, emending as they go. It's likely that Lincoln strayed, if only slightly, from the reading version of his text.

    Lincoln tinkered with his words before reading, while reading, and afterwards as well. For him, no version was ever final. None of this detracts from the grandeur and importance we attach to the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, or Lincoln's other writing. It just shows that the postmodern notion of an unstable text – particularly noticeable when we deal with the digitized words of the internet – has been alive and well for hundreds of years, perhaps since writers first put pen to paper or stylus to clay.

    After the Civil War the union came back together, and the United States has remained one nation, indivisible, ever since. A day before Lincoln's bicentennial, Rep. Steve King of Iowa reintroduced the English Language Unity Act, H.R. 997, on the House floor. Supporters of official English like to think that speaking one language is what holds a fragile American union together. Speaking in support of the measure, the chair of U.S. English, Mauro E. Mujica, said, "I hope the 111th Congress will be the one to promote our common language and cease separating people along language lines."

    But Americans don't separate along language lines. Sometimes supporters of official English argue that immigrants can't understand the principles on which the U.S. was founded unless they can read documents like the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation in the original English.

    Opening of the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation 

    The Emancipation Proclamation

    But speaking English didn't preserve the Union in 1861, and a common language didn't reunite the nation four years later.  That took the rule of law, backed up by military force, not to mention a presidential assassination that underscored the horrors of the Civil War. And even with all the might of the federal government behind the Union, many states in the former Confederacy never designated a school holiday to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday.

    Reading founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, or the Constitution in the original English won't ensure unity either. The constant and often contentious wrangling of scholars and lawyers over the meaning of the Constitution suggests that its significance isn't always obvious, even after more than 200 years. And so far as the meaning of Lincoln's speeches goes, we still honor them because, even though in many cases his exact words continue to elude us, we do get the gist of what he said.

    Folk art statue of Lincoln 

    This 26’ statue of Lincoln at an equipment rental firm in Kankakee, Illinois, faces Interstate 57. At the owner's behest, Lincoln often holds large signs asking motorists to vote Republican.

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