There’s perhaps no better way to grasp Abraham Lincoln’s outsized American legacy than through his writing.
From his time as a twenty-something political hopeful to his tragic death, Lincoln was a voluminous writer, authoring hundreds of letters, speeches, debate arguments and more.
Despite very little formal schooling, the 16th president was an avid reader who from a young age understood the transformative power of words. “Words were Lincoln’s way up and out of the grinding poverty into which he had been born,” wrote historian and author Geoffrey Ward. “If the special genius of America was that it provided an environment in which ‘every man can make himself,’ as Lincoln believed, pen and ink were the tools with which he did his self-carpentering.”
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While he often expressed himself with humor and folksy wisdom, Lincoln wasn’t afraid to wade into lofty territory. His writings show how his thoughts on the thorny issues of the day—like slavery, religion, national discord—evolved over time. He penned some of America’s most monumental expressions of statecraft, such as the Gettysburg Address, widely hailed for its eloquence and clarity of thought. His prose, infused with his deep love of poetry, helped him in his efforts to reach—and heal—a fractured nation.
Here are a few excerpts of Lincoln’s writings, both famous and lesser-known.
On the Fractured Nation
The ‘House Divided’ Speech: As America expanded West and fought bitterly over whether new territories could extend the practice of slavery, Lincoln spoke out about what he saw as a growing threat to the Union. Many criticized this speech as radical, believing—mistakenly—that Lincoln was advocating for war.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” —Lincoln’s acceptance of the Illinois Republican nomination to U.S. Senate, June 16, 1858
The ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’ speech: By the time Lincoln was first sworn into office, seven states had already seceded from the Union. During his first address as president, he tried to assure the South that slavery would not be interfered with, and to quiet the drumbeat of war by appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” —Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
The Gettysburg Address: Hailed as one of the most important speeches in U.S. history, Lincoln delivered his brief, 272-word address at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield, the site of more than 50,000 casualties. By alluding to the Declaration of Independence, he redefined the war as a struggle not just to preserve the Union, but for the fundamental principle of human freedom.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war… The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. —November 19, 1863
During his younger years, the future President remained notoriously noncommital on the topic of religion—so much so that even his close friends were unable to verify his personal faith. At times, wrote Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, “He would actually be aggressive on the subject of unbelief,” asserting that the Bible was just a book or that Jesus was an illegitimate child.
This lack of clarity on his beliefs—Was he an atheist? A skeptic?—proved a political liability early on. After failing to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843, a worried Lincoln expressed fears that his lack of religiosity might have been to blame:
“It was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to go for me, because I belonged to no church.” —1843 letter to his friend Martin M. Morris
Lincoln won that House seat three years later, but not without his opponent, a revivalist preacher, accusing him of being a religious scoffer. Instead of dismissing the allegation, as he might have before, the future President wrote a public message directly to his constituency to deny any disrepect, while still avoiding pinning himself down to one personal faith:
“That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.” —Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity, July 31, 1846
By his first inauguration, Lincoln had evolved to making full-throated avowals of faith, even declaring that adherence to Christianity was critical to the Union’s survival.
“Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.” —First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
READ MORE: Was Abraham Lincoln an Atheist?
On Racial (In)equality
It might seem that the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, the president hailed as “the Great Liberator,” would have clear and consistent views on racial justice and equality. Not exactly.
From the onset, Lincoln always opposed the idea and existence of slavery. As early as 1837, when addressing Congress as a newly-elected member of the Illinois General Assembly, the 28-year-old Lincoln proclaimed the institution to be “founded on both injustice and bad policy.”
Nearly two decades later, he continued to reject it on moral and political grounds:
I can not but hate [the declared indifference for slavery’s spread]. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest. —Speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854
Nonetheless, despite his deep opposition to slavery, Lincoln did not believe in racial equality. He made this point clear during his famed debates against rival Stephen A. Douglas during their race for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.…
I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office…there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” —Lincoln-Douglas debates, September 18, 1858
Lincoln struggled to articulate a vision for how free Black Americans could integrate into white-dominated U.S. society. Under constant political pressure to offset his push for emancipation, Lincoln frequently floated the idea of resettling African Americans elsewhere—to Africa, the Caribbean or Central America. As early as 1854, he articulated this idea:
“I should not know what to do as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” —Speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854
Lincoln’s views on race equality continued to evolve until his death. In his last public address, just four days before his assassination, Lincoln seemed to denounce a future in which newly freed Black Americans were barred from a chance at equal access to the American dream.
“Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to the white men, “You are worthless, or worse—we will neither help you, nor be helped by you.” To the blacks we say, “This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.” —Final public speech, April 11, 1865
In that same speech Lincoln also teased the idea of Black suffrage, particularly maddening one attendee. Listening from the crowd, Confederate veteran John Wilkes Booth heard the assertion and remarked, “That is the last speech he will make.”
WATCH: Abraham Lincoln: His Life and Legacy in HISTORY Vault
On Native Americans
Those who view Lincoln as a champion of equality might see inconsistency in his views toward Native Americans, as well. Like most white leaders of his time, Lincoln saw America’s Indigenous peoples as barbarous—and barriers to the progress of white settlers.
Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald notes that Lincoln enjoyed having tribal people make visits to the White House, dressed in traditional garb. He considered the sight “exotic” and enjoyed the chance to act as their “Great Father,” often by speaking to them condescendingly, as if they were children.
“You have all spoken of the strange sights you see here, among your pale-faced brethren; the very great number of people that you see; the big wigwams; the difference between our people and your own. But you have seen but a very small part of the pale-faced people. You may wonder when I tell you that there are people here in this wigwam, now looking at you, who have come from other countries a great deal farther off than you have come. We pale-faced people think that this world is a great, round ball, and we have people here of the pale-faced family who have come almost from the other side of it to represent their nations here and conduct their friendly intercourse with us, as you now come from your part of the round ball.” —Remarks to a delegation of Indian leaders visiting the White House, March 27, 1863
When Lincoln suggested to Indigenous leaders that the only way for their people to prosper was to abandon their lifeways and assimilate into white culture, his comments may have landed with a particular thud. The irony was surely not lost on his audience that the white Americans who decried them as “savages” were at that moment embroiled in a bloody, deeply destructive civil war:
“You have asked for my advice. I really am not capable of advising you whether, in the providence of the Great Spirit, who is the great Father of us all, it is best for you to maintain the habits and customs of your race, or adopt a new mode of life. I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do.” —Remarks to a delegation of Indian leaders visiting the White House, March 27, 1863
An essential facet of Lincoln the man—and a huge contributor to his political success—was his witty, folksy humor and his talent for mimicry. An inveterate storyteller, Lincoln skillfully spun up puns, jokes, aphorisms and yarns to offset dicey social and political situations, ingratiate himself with hostile audiences, endear himself with the common man and separate himself from political opponents.
As a lawyer, Lincoln always made a point to speak plainly to the judge and jury, avoiding obscure or high-minded legal jargon. One day in court, another lawyer quoted a legal maxim in Latin, then asked Lincoln to affirm it. His response: “If that’s Latin,” Lincoln replied, “you had better call another witness.”
So captivating and engaging was Lincoln’s banter that even his vaunted Senate opponent Stephen A. Douglas begrudgingly acknowledged its effectiveness. Douglas likened it to “a slap across my back. Nothing else—not any of his arguments or any of his replies to my questions—disturbs me. But when he begins to tell a story, I feel that I am to be overmatched.”
Humor played a key role, historians say, in Lincoln’s victory over Douglas in their famed 1858 debates. In one instance, he colorfully undercut Douglas’s arguments for the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision as “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”
And when hecklers followed a Douglas jibe by calling Lincoln “two-faced,” the future president famously defused the attack with his famed self-deprecating humor:
“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”