I enjoy studying our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. I have shelves of books that examine his speeches and letters, and I’m inspired by the almost-Shakespearean way Lincoln has of funneling deep meaning into few words.
Perhaps his most famous speech is the Gettysburg Address, given on November 19, 1863. Its compassion and straightforward message were exactly what the nation needed, although they wouldn’t fully realize this until after the war, when they would begin to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” Lincoln’s words had gained weight since he first spoke them.
Visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park was a moving experience – I hadn’t expected the battlefield to be so vast, or the stillness to be so powerful. Later, I had the opportunity to stand in the spot where Lincoln stood when he delivered the Gettysburg Address, dedicating the Soldier’s National Cemetery. Being a part of history, even in a small sense like that, is very meaningful.
I’ll always be a great fan of both the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I admire how Lincoln, in both instances, set aside his personal issues to address the nation’s deep needs – not his vision for the future, or his goals for his administration, but what the nation needed at that very moment.
One of my Lincoln favorites is The Bixby Letter, written in 1864 to a widow, Mrs. Lydia Bixby. Expressing his condolences on the loss of her sons during the Civil War, the letter reveals Lincoln’s helplessness as he struggles to console her:
“I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.
But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
Authorship of this letter has been debated for years. Some historians think John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, was the true author; others maintain it was Lincoln. The tone is reminiscent of Lincoln’s other writings – eloquent, yet conveying his humanity and awareness of a wider scope of events. It’s also contested that not all of Lydia Bixby’s sons died in battle – that only two did, while another was honorably discharged and one deserted or died a prisoner of war.
That aside, the writing is powerful and moving, considering the situation under which Lydia Bixby and Lincoln both labored. In a few short sentences, Lincoln conveys almost everything we need to know, leaving us feeling a higher moral purpose. Like good writing should.
But since good writing – and interesting places – impact each of us differently, I’d like to hear what’s made a difference to you. What has moved you? Filled you with purpose? Called you to action?