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.”
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 and 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.
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.”
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.
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:
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:
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.
READ MORE: Was Abraham Lincoln an Atheist?
On Racial Inequality
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:
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:
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:
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.
In that same speech, Lincoln also teased the idea of Black suffrage, particularly maddening one attendee. Listening from the crowd, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth heard the assertion and remarked, “That is the last speech he will make.”
READ MORE: Check out our Abraham Lincoln content hub, with more than three dozen stories about the 16th president.
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, 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?”
WATCH: Abraham Lincoln: His Life and Legacy on HISTORY Vault