Abe Lincoln Reading

Peter W. Schramm

February 1, 2000

A few weeks ago I noticed that some of the presidential candidates were asked about their favorite authors and poets. The only interesting response came from John McCain. He said his favorite novel was For Whom the Bell Tolls and his favorite poem was The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. Although we found out that he learned the lengthy poem by heart while he was a prisoner of war—one of his fellow POW’s tapped it out on the thick walls of his cells—no one bothered to ask him why he liked it, or what it taught him.

Perhaps it is worth noting on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday why he didn’t need to be asked such questions. What he read came up naturally in conversations. We all know that Mr. Lincoln was almost entirely a self-educated man. We also know that he was not a widely read man, in the way we would understand that today. We also know that what he did read was most important to the development of his fine heart and mind. His reading consisted almost entirely of the King James Bible, Blackstone’s lectures on English law, and Shakespeare.

According to his best biographer, Lord Charnwood, Lincoln, this humorist and public man, had a “rare capacity for solitary thought.” He was capable of great concentration and when he wished to read, he did so, ignoring everything and everyone around him. Almost everything he read he read aloud. When asked why, he said: “When I read aloud, two senses catch the idea: first, I see what I read; second, I hear it, and therefore I can remember it better.” No doubt, reading Shakespeare aloud also helped him make friends with the English language in a way no politician since has been able to do. Note the cadence and the perfection of form of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. These poems should be endlessly recited, aloud.

Lincoln saturated his mind with Shakespeare. He loved Shakespeare. And he knew that to understand Shakespeare all you needed was the poet’s work itself; no need for simple-minded lectures from an academic infused with the latest version of French critical theory (the reason most undergraduates don’t like Shakespeare). He took his son Tad to a performance of King Lear once and whenever Tad asked for an explanation of events and actions in the play, Lincoln merely said: “My child, it is in the play.”

The actor James Murdoch once had a lengthy conversation with Lincoln about Hamlet in which Lincoln argued that Hamlet’s speech beginning “To be, or not to be” was less impressive than the murderer Claudius’s speech beginning “Oh, my offence is rank.”

Lincoln said: “The former is merely a philosophical reflection on the question of life and death, without actual reference to a future judgment, while the latter is a solemn acknowledgment of inevitable punishment hereafter for the infraction of divine law. Let anyone reflect on the moral tone of the two soliloquies, and there can be no mistaking the force and grandeur of the lesson taught by one and the merely speculative consideration in the other of an alternative for the ills that flesh is heir to.”

He was looking ahead to an Edwin Booth’s performance of Richard III once while posing for a painting by the well established painter Francis Carpenter (who lived in the White House from February to July 1864 and was the one who painted “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation”) and said this to him:

“The opening of the play Richard III seems to me entirely misapprehended. It is quite common for an actor to come up on the stage, and, in a sophomoric style, to begin with a flourish: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.’ Now this is all wrong. Richard, you remember, had been, and was then, plotting the destruction of his brothers, to make room for himself. Outwardly, the most loyal to the newly crowned king, secretly he could scarcely contain his impatience at the obstacles still in the way of his own elevation. He appears upon the stage, just after the crowning of Edward, burning with repressed hate and jealousy. The prologue is the utterance of the most intense bitterness and satire.”

In the end, Lincoln always maintained, however, that “It matters not to me whether Shakespeare be well or ill acted, with him the thought suffices.”

On April 3, 1865 Lincoln—over the objections of the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—followed the Union troops into Richmond. He saw the devastation himself, sat in Jefferson Davis’s chair, and experienced the gratitude of the black Americans. When a number of blacks ran up to him and fell on their knees trying to kiss Lincoln’s feet, Abe said to them: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”

During the voyage home he entertained his companions by reading Shakespeare to them. Twice he read over Macbeth Act III, Scene 2. Twice his companions were moved to tears by the meat and marrow of the words.

Duncan is in his grave;

After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,

Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing

Can touch him further.

Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.