Captain Of The Team Of Rivals

Sep 30 2012 @ 8:34pm

Lincoln

Reviewing a new biography of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, Dorothy Wickenden describes how the two collaborated on one of America’s most enduring presidential speeches:

Lincoln had few of the insecurities that hobble far more experienced politicians. He surrounded himself with seasoned if fractious advisers, and during his first weekend in Washington he asked Seward to look over his Inaugural Address. Salmon Chase, soon to be Treasury Secretary and a Seward antagonist, had been urging Lincoln to take a hard line with the South. But Seward thought that Lincoln’s bristling tone was all wrong. He compiled a six-page list of proposed revisions, including a section on the Dred Scott decision, in which the President deplored “the despotism of the few life officers composing the Court.” Lincoln accepted many of Seward’s changes, most important his elimination of the bellicose conclusion: “You can forbear the assault upon [the government], I can not shrink from the defense of it. With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of ‘Shall it be peace, or a sword?’” Seward urged Lincoln to conclude, instead, with “some words of affection,” of “calm and cheerful confidence.” Excising Lincoln’s last lines, he substituted his own:

Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln took the sentiment, stripped it of its orotundity, and produced one of the most stirring political statements in American history:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, 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.

(Image via WikiMedia Commons)