Lincoln and Seward Work on the Poetry of the Inaugural Address

Sunday, February 24, 1861

Lincoln had been working on his Inaugural Address for several weeks now and was hitting up close friends and confidants for suggestions. He gave Seward a copy of the rough draft and awaited his response.1

Seward was ready to give his thoughts by that evening, suggesting 49 different changes. Most were simply a word or two, but a couple of paragraphs near the beginning caught his eye as he believed they would cause Virginia and Maryland to leave the Union. While he agreed that the government should strictly adhere to the tenets of the Republican Party as well as take back the seized forts and arsenals, Lincoln might want to tone it down a bit lest there be bloodshed come March 3.

He also suggested that Lincoln give the speech a happier ending. Lincoln originally ended it with “will it be peace or a sword?,” however Seward’s suggestions for now were cumbersome, wordy and nearly pointless.2

Lincoln would take most of Seward’s suggestions to heart, but wasn’t at all sold on Seward’s ending. Nor was he sold on his own. Seward, however, suggested another ending; an ending that would, according to Seward, “meet and remove prejudice and passion in the South… Some words of affection – some of calm, and cheerful confidence.”

Seward came up with: “I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. 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 angels of the nation.”

This was something Lincoln could work with (and, as we can see, it was very close to the final draft). Over the next week, he would complete his inaugural address with a bit of help from a favorite poem.

A year earlier, a friend of Lincoln’s son Robert named Frank Fuller gave Mary a book of poems by Albert Laighton, a poet from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The piece entitled “In Memorium,” ended with the lines:

   0, moaning wind! 0, falling leaf!
   Ye shall not fill my soul with grief
   For her whose feet so early trod
   The starry steeps that lead to God!
   Whose heart shall never bear again
   Life's weight of weariness and pain
       Tenderly and joyfully
       Thrill the chords of memory!

Here was written what Lincoln needed to complete the address. Taking Seward’s “mystic chords” and Laighton’s “chords of memory,” Lincoln derived the now-famous “mystic chords of memory…”3

This is not at all to say that Lincoln was merely some plagiarist, owing everything written to any source but his own mind. Hardly. The speech, which wouldn’t be finished for a week or so, was, to this point, easily Lincoln’s highest literary achievement.4

Sometime during this day, Lincoln kept his appointment with photographer Mathew Brady. Brady could not make it, however, and had instructed his associate Alexander Gardner to capture the likeness. Lincoln came in and sat down upon a chair, placed his hat on a table and simply looked tired.

Gardner seized the moment, taking three photographs – the first of Lincoln in Washington.

  1. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []
  2. Lincoln President-Elect by Harold Holzer. []
  3. The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein, who discovered this poetic connection. []
  4. From what I could tell, it is possible that Seward provided his two endings on two different days. Most authors combine them and those that do not, don’t give a date for the second ending. With the precedent of combining the two to the same day (as Team of Rivals author, Dorris Kearns Goodwin did) and without a solid separate date, I’ll just say that they happened on the same day. []
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Lincoln and Seward Work on the Poetry of the Inaugural Address by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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4 thoughts on “Lincoln and Seward Work on the Poetry of the Inaugural Address

  1. I went back to this post because of something I was doing for something else. I think this shows you are a good resource.

    There is a little-known anecdote about the Inaugural Address, way before Seward got his hands on it. Lincoln had it with him in a black leather case of some kind, and took it with him on the Inaugural Express trip to DC in February. At some point he handed the case to his son, Robert, telling him to take good care of it. Later in the evening, at a hotel reception, Lincoln asked Robert the whereabouts of the case. Robert, a tad the worse for drink, told his dad he had put it in the hotel coat check.

    AL went ballistic. Apparently he dashed back to the coat check, vaulted over the table, and started rummaging around in the luggage and valises. He screamed at Ward Lamon for the key to his carpet bag, and Lamon, close behind Lincoln, produced it immediately.

    Lincoln found the right bag, opened it, and found the leather case. Whew!

    There is more to the story–apparently Osias Hatch was leaving the train to return to Illinois. Lincoln gave him the speech, and asked him to hold it until the Lincoln’s were safe in DC. Then Lincoln paid for Hatch to personally deliver the rough drafts to the White House.

    Robert Lincoln–what a guy!

  2. Please excuse the ‘s in Lincoln’s. It should be just a simple plural. When you see it wrong so many times, mistakes get made. I couldn’t find any way to edit my Comment, but I do know better.

    Or is that no better?

    1. Oh this is great! Thank you so much! I see that there’s a new bio of Robert Lincoln coming out (am I remember this right?). If I had all the time in the world, I would read it.

      I didn’t even notice the mistake – which says quite a bit about my own proof reading skills, I’m sure.

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