Lincoln’s most inelegant writing—and most important

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It would go into full effect on January 1, 1863.

While Lincoln’s intent was unmistakably noble—and incredibly politically shrewd—the words of the Proclamation appear to be among the most inelegant words Lincoln ever wrote.

Although it’s frequently misconstrued as the document that freed the slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single person. Based on Lincoln’s powers as commander in chief, the proclamation freed slaves only in areas that were in rebellion—in others words, only in the Confederacy. Lincoln had no way to enforce the proclamation except through military victories (and by the fall of 1862, his armies were doing so poorly that he had to spin the tactical draw at Antietam into a “win”).

On the surface, the Proclamation was a paper tiger. Yet, Lincoln recognized the Proclamation as “the central act of my administration.”

A casual reader would hardly know that, though, by looking at the Proclamation’s prose:

I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

Hardly seems like it was written by the same man whose literary eloquence gave us “Four score and seven years ago” and “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….”

The White House has been occupied by some excellent writers—including Jefferson and TR, who were literary giants—but Lincoln stands tallest as an elegant stylist. He authored some of America’s most enduring words.

But wordsmithing isn’t the only secret to good writing. The most successful writers know their audience—and Lincoln had several tough audiences to reach: Abolitionists, Unionist who weren’t necessarily anti-slavery, border states that still had slaveholding populations, foreign countries that were considering whether to intervene in the war, soldiers in both armies, the Confederacy in general, and, yes, the slaves themselves.

As a result, writes Lincoln scholar Douglas Wilson, the language of the Proclamation “had to be emotionally chaste; it must avoid words and phrases that would appeal only to partisans and be landmines for others…. Its ultimate appeal would consist largely in its lack of linguistic or rhetorical appeal.”

There’s a time for flourish, Lincoln knew, and a time for business. The Proclamation was written in language that meant business from a president that meant business.

While the words themselves might not be as enduring as “of the people, by the people, for the people,” Lincoln’s intent was unmistakable, and the power of that intent has endured as strongly as any speech.

The Proclamation might not be Lincoln’s most memorable writing, but it definitely stands as some of his best.

4 Responses to Lincoln’s most inelegant writing—and most important

  1. Yes, that’s how it strikes me, too: as pure, tortured legalese. The photo of Lincoln that you chose to use here is amusing; it appears that he resents your criticism!

  2. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

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