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When discerning observers noticed that his words had power, they often assumed that someone else must have written them. His Secretary of State, William H. Seward, was a noted orator and wordsmith who was thought to have had a hand in Lincoln's first Inaugural. That was in fact true, but few of Seward's suggested changes were stylistic improvements, and we know from the manuscript that his chief contribution--a more conciliatory ending--was brilliantly rewritten by Lincoln. The Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, was sometimes thought to be responsible for Lincoln's best work, and occasionally it was credited to the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. But when approached with such a suggestion by a friend, Stanton told him bluntly, "Lincoln wrote it--every word of it. And he is capable of more than that."
In the hindsight of history, we can see that Stanton knew what he was talking about. But how was it that Lincoln turned out to be so exceptional a writer and that it was so little apparent to his contemporaries? Studying Lincoln's writing over the years has convinced me that most of the factors that contributed to Lincoln's extraordinary literary achievement were invisible to his public and were even contrary to its general sense of who he was. As a child, he was fascinated with words and meanings and obsessed with clarity, both in understanding and in being understood. He wrote all his life for local newspapers, although mostly anonymously, and harbored a lifelong tendency to meet provocation with a written response. By the 1850s, when he came to political prominence, he had already formed the habit of making notes on scraps of paper of ideas and phrases as they occurred to him, which he then used in composing speeches. And perhaps his most valuable and most unsuspected trait as a writer was his devotion to revision.
We know, of course, how it all turned out. Nowhere is that more evident than in the contrast between two speeches given on November 19, 1863. Everett, who had been a president of Harvard, a Congressman, a Senator and a Governor of Massachusetts as well as a Secretary of State and a minister to England, was chosen to deliver the principal address at the dedication of the new national cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Lincoln was invited almost as an afterthought. One man spoke for two hours, the other for two minutes. One speech was printed and distributed in advance and has rarely been read since. The other is one of the most famous compositions in the American language.
Wilson is a co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.