Silence Before the Storm

The words of a president can convey — or conceal — a great deal of meaning. As the United States approached the central crisis in its history, there was no reason to expect great eloquence from the man whose election had precipitated that conflict. Abraham Lincoln was often described as an uncouth barbarian, and had received the least education of any presidential nominee in American history, save Andrew Jackson. Yet there he was in the fall of 1860, standing before the American people, the embodiment of their hopes and fears. In this politically charged atmosphere, the words that flowed from his pen, and his equally expressive silences, did a great deal to define the conflict coming into view. This occasional feature in the Disunion series will probe Lincoln’s language, looking at his speeches and public pronouncements during the long transition between his election eve on Nov. 5, 1860, and his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861.

Nov. 5, 1860

The history books are relatively quiet about how Abraham Lincoln spent the night before the great election. But we can be relatively certain that he was quiet, too. There were no speeches given in Springfield that election eve, in keeping with his self-imposed exile from the public realm for many months now. Public silence was a new approach for Lincoln; he had already given many hundreds of speeches in his career: according to his private secretary, John Nicolay, he gave some 100 in 1858, when he failed in his quest to become a senator, and more than 50 in 1856, when he stumped for John Frémont, the Republican candidate.

A Lincoln campaign photograph taken on May 20, 1860, by William Marsh.

That he was a candidate at all stemmed from an eloquence that never failed to surprise people, for the simple reason that he looked so unlikely to give a good speech. His appearance was awkward and ungainly, his voice undistinguished and full of Western twang. We are used to hearing it, in our mind’s ear, as a basso profundo (so Hollywood always interprets it, from Raymond Massey to Disneyland’s animatronic Abe to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). But his law partner, William Herndon, called it “sharp — shrill piping and squeaky.” An audience member at his famous 1860 speech at Cooper Union wrote, “the first utterance of the voice was not pleasant to the ear, the tone being harsh and the key too high.”

Yet it was his words that counted: this prairie lawyer got to the nub of an issue like no one else. In 1858, when so many Americans were willing to accept compromise after compromise to maintain the union, he solemnly predicted that the United States would have to choose between one version of itself or another. At Cooper Union he dazzled a well-heeled New York audience with an exhaustive examination of the limits the founders had placed upon slavery. These oratorical triumphs had brought the great prize of the presidency within his grasp — first, the nomination at Chicago in May, and now, in November, the final days of a campaign on the verge of victory. Nicolay wrote that he quietly felt “a considerable confidence that [Lincoln] would be elected.”

It was a remarkable ascent for someone who had hungered for glory as long as his close friends could remember, but who had always mocked his own chances of achieving it. Only two years earlier, the candidate had confessed to a journalist that his wife hoped he might someday be president. Then: “Those last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife’s ambition. ‘Just think,’ he exclaimed, ‘of such a sucker as me as president!’”

But as Lincoln approached the prize, a curtain of silence descended around him. There were no speeches at all, save utterly perfunctory ones, when he could not avoid them. He was barely involved in his nomination, except to verify that a rail dragged in by his cousin might have been split by him, decades earlier. The New York Times, nonplussed by this non-entity who had seized the prize from local hero William H. Seward, published the news of his nomination with a gigantic misspelling, presenting “Abram” Lincoln as the Republican standard-bearer.

To an extent, this self-imposed exile descended from tradition. George Washington’s silences were often louder than his words, and Lincoln was vividly aware of his precedent. By an old rule, candidates did not campaign for the office they had spent their entire lives seeking; instead, the work was done by proxies. But Lincoln had more reason than most to remain mute. On all sides, Americans strained to misrepresent him, to declare him weak, or tyrannical, or unwilling to abolish slavery, or unwilling not to. In a highly electric atmosphere, it was essential to speak precisely, and if necessary, not to speak at all.

The candidate understood this perfectly; according to his secretary, “his self-control was simply wonderful” as he achieved “an enforced idleness” completely out of character. Day after day Americans clamored to learn more about this cipher, yet no news flowed from his office. The torrent of mail that arrived was answered with the most perfunctory replies. Autograph requests were acceded to; but requests for speeches were declined, with the lame excuse, “I am not a professional lecturer — have never got up but one lecture; and that, I think, rather a poor one.”

Lincoln enforced this discipline on his closest advisers as well. To John Nicolay, charged with a difficult interview to sound out a possible supporter, he wrote a short note that ended “commit me to nothing.” Other fragments from that frantic year reveal an almost maniacal commitment to secrecy, such as a May 17th note that read “make no contracts that will bind me” or a May 30th note that said, more to the point, “burn this, not that there is any thing wrong in it; but because it is best not to be known that I write at all.” All summer and fall, as the noise around him grew, the silence within him deepened.

But that did not mean he wasn’t paying attention. On the contrary, he monitored all communications in and out with the greatest attention to detail, like a spider feeling the most minute tugs on an intricate web. To a New York printer reproducing a copy of his Cooper Union speech, on May 31, he wrote exacting instructions, explaining why tiny words such as “quite,” “as” and “or” were essential to his argument. In short, everything had to be perfect for this most discriminating of editors: “I do not wish the sense changed, or modified, to a hair’s breadth.” It was one of the longest letters he wrote all year; a rare departure from silence, for the higher purpose of enforcing exactitude.

And yet silence did not convey uncertainty, as so many accused. The candidate was already amassing ammunition for the struggle to come, one that would be waged with written and spoken words, along with blunter instruments of persuasion. His secretary could not be certain, but left open the tantalizing possibility that the candidate was already at work on his inaugural address, well before the election confirmed that he would deliver one. As the final results came clicking across the telegraph to the Illinois State House on Nov. 6, he may already have been writing out the first sentences of the speech that would emphatically break the silence.

Sources: John Nicolay, “Lincoln in the Campaign of 1860″; George Haven Putnam, “The Speech that Won the East for Lincoln”; Henry Villard, “Lincoln on the Eve of ‘61″; Harold Holzer, “Lincoln: President-Elect“; David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer, “Lincoln in the Times“; “Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln.”

Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”


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