Pundit Wire

“Who will write this ignorant man’s state papers?”

lincoln When Abraham Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, one newspaper editor demanded, “Who will write this ignorant man’s state papers?”

As we prepare to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, we 21st century Americans find such a question laughable. But in 1860 there was good reason to look on Lincoln as–if not an ignorant man–at least a man who lacked formal education. Aside from attending local schools in Kentucky for two brief terms when he was a small boy, Lincoln was wholly self-educated.

How, then, did this barely-literate country boy become the Lincoln of letters? Some of us know that Lincoln was devoted to the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. But his education as a writer was broader than that. The historian Douglas L. Wilson has traced Lincoln’s progress as a writer in two excellent books, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words.

According to Wilson, Lincoln–like any aspiring writer–was a voracious reader. Young Abe read all the books he could get his hands on, Lincoln’s stepmother later recalled, and when he found a passage that struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper. He kept a copybook of his favorite quotes and re-read them often.

In addition to Shakespeare, Lincoln read the English romantic poets and the poems of Robert Burns. Some of his friends said that Lincoln knew practically the whole of Burns by heart.

As for writing, John L. Scripps, one of Lincoln’s first biographers, offers this tantalizing glimpse of Lincoln when he was about six or seven years old: “It was his custom to form letters, to write words and sentences wherever he found suitable material. He scrawled them with charcoal, he scored them in the dust, in the sand, in the snow–anywhere and everywhere that lines could be drawn, there he improved his capacity for writing.”

Scripps adds that Lincoln’s talent as a writer was recognized early on. Lincoln’s parents were illiterate, as were most of their neighbors, so while he was still a boy, Lincoln became the family and the neighborhood scribe. According to Scripps, Lincoln’s role in this regard was due not merely to the fact that he could write and was obliging, but because of “his ability to express the wishes and feelings of those for whom he wrote in clear and forcible language.”

There was yet another aspect of Lincoln’s development as a writer. As Gary Wills observed, “Lincoln, like most writers of great prose, began by writing bad poetry.”

A poem Lincoln wrote around 1844, when he was in his mid-30s, shows the influence of Burns and, possibly, John Greenleaf Whittier:

My childhood home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.

Lincoln himself realized that such doggerel verse was hardly the stuff of great poetry. But even at an early age, he seemed to have sensed that he had a destiny as a writer. A half-humorous entry he made in his notebook during his teen years reads as follows:

Abraham Lincoln
His hand and pen
He will be good but
God knows when.

God knew, and today we all know. But the process by which Lincoln went from scrawling words in the dust to writing words that would be chiseled in marble is something that we know only in part. The rest will remain forever a mystery. punditwire


HGordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.


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  • http://www.samuellovett.com/ Sam Lovett

    I love the image of young Lincoln serving as his community’s unofficial scribe. You can understand how a passion for writing would take hold of a child’s mind when such satisfying and rewarding outlets are available for applying a craft.