A Man of His Words: Of all the U.S. presidents, Abraham Lincoln had the best speechwriter—himself
Abraham Lincoln, the greatest American president, was also in my view the best of all presidential speechwriters. As a youngster in Lincoln, Nebraska, I stood before the statue of the president gracing the west side of the towering state capitol and soaked up the words of his Gettysburg Address, inscribed on a granite slab behind the statue.
Two decades later, in January 1961, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked me to study those words again, in preparing to help him write his inaugural address. He also asked me to read all previous 20th-century inaugural addresses. I did not learn much from those speeches (except for FDR’s first inaugural), but I learned a great deal from Lincoln’s ten sentences.
Now, 47 years later, as another tall, skinny, oratorically impressive Illinois lawyer is invoking Lincoln as he pursues his own candidacy for president, and with Lincoln’s bicentennial underway (he turns 200 February 12, 2009), I want to acknowledge my debt.
Lincoln was a superb writer. Like Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt, but few if any other presidents, he could have been a successful writer wholly apart from his political career. He needed no White House speechwriter, as that post is understood today. He wrote his major speeches out by hand, as he did his eloquent letters and other documents. Sometimes he read his draft speeches aloud to others, including members of his cabinet and his two principal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, and he occasionally received suggestions, particularly at the start of his administration, from his onetime rival for the presidency, Secretary of State William Seward. On the first occasion on which Seward offered a major contribution—Lincoln’s first inaugural—the president demonstrated clearly that he was the better speechwriter. Seward’s idea was worthy, principally a change in the ending, making it softer, more conciliatory, invoking shared memories. But his half-completed proposed wording, often cited by historians, was pedestrian: “The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts … in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”