“In Our Hands”: A Look at Lincoln’s Use of a Phrase

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | February 12, 2013

February 12, 2013
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Because many people are talking this week about Lincoln, what with the Oscars and all, some people, naturally, are also talking about Lincoln. In the film, for instance, there is a scene early on in which Lincoln complains of having to wear, on dress occasions, kid gloves – yet does so, rather than upset convention in general and his wife in particular. At the end of the film, however, as he leaves to go the to the theatre  – where, in fact,  he will be killed – he makes a point of leaving the hated gloves at home. What, some have wondered, is the symbolism of this? An answer may be found between the lines here, in two letters, both written by Lincoln at heightened, hard-won, and long-sought moments….

The most momentous election in American history featured four major candidates, two of whom were Democrats; a host of surrogate orators for the nominees, three of whom would not speak publicly themselves; and in the lead, on October 12, 1860, a Springfield, Illinois lawyer who had almost no experience in government, heading a party founded just four years before. Yet in the Congressional elections of October 9th, Abraham Lincoln’s new Republican party swept to victory in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana and it looked, almost for a certainty, Lincoln writes here, “as if the government is about to fall into our hands”…

I am quite satisfied with what you said, at Chicago… and I am much obliged to you for saying it – I hope it did not give you much trouble weaving it into the general web of your discourse…I am glad to have the expression of your continued confidence. It now really looks as if the government is about to fall into our hands. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana have surpassed all expectation, even the most extravagant.

Lincoln’s use of the phrase “in our hands” is particularly interesting, for it suggests a sureness, a literal grasp, that he would use again at another heightened, hard-won, and long-sought moment: writing at the end of the Civil War, he said, “’it is certain now that Richmond is in our hands…”

By April 3, 1865, the carnage was almost over. The death toll was up to 620,000 which, if one were to compare the Civil War’s rate of death to the current American population, would be the equivalent of six million fatalities. Of that human capital, the Confederacy spent heaviest: one out of every five southern men of military age did not survive the war. Lincoln, knowing that this harvest of death was finally coming to an end, could barely contain himself, and had hurried to the front, to be on hand for the final act. He’d visited fallen Petersburg; now, he waited for nearby Richmond, the Confederate capitol, to fall as well. In Washington, however, the Secretary of War thought that the President’s stepping foot in the very epicenter of the “treacherous and dangerous enemy” was way too dangerous: Lincoln ought, Stanton said, not to “expose the nation to the consequences of any disaster” which could easily befall him. Lincoln replied – reassuringly, with what, within little more than a week, would soon seem terrible irony:

Yours received. Thanks for your caution; but I have already been to Petersburg, staid with Gen. Grant an hour & a half and returned here. It is certain now that Richmond is in our hands, and I think I will go there to-morrow. I will take care of myself.

In a letter to a political ally, in 1860, as a victory gleamed; in 1865, to a war-time colleague, as a victory burned bright: both times Lincoln used the phrase, “in our hands”, to describe the thing so fervently sought.  It isn’t necessarily fanciful to imagine that perhaps Lincoln, who began life as a manual laborer – clearing fields, splitting rails, building fences – retained a workman’s sure sense as to when a job was done: he could feel it.

Cast of Abraham Lincoln's hand, taken by Leonard Volk on May 20, 1860. National Museum of American History.
Cast of Abraham Lincoln's hand, taken by Leonard Volk on May 20, 1860. National Museum of American History.

The screenwriter of Lincoln, Tony Kushner, is said to have spent six years studying Lincoln, and one suspects, read every word the President ever wrote. He may, then, have been to one degree or another aware that Lincoln used the phrase “in our hands” a few dozen times – though but twice in the context of triumph. Kushner’s choosing to show Lincoln as first disliking to wear white kid gloves, and then deliberately, almost defiantly, leaving them behind as he went off to Ford’s Theatre – there, to be killed – seems to suggest that Lincoln, in victory, and in death, was at last free to be himself.  But be that as it may: such a scene never happened. Lincoln wore white kid gloves to the Theatre.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809-1865. The 16th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 2 pages, octavo, Springfield, October 12, 1860. To William H. Seward.

Autograph Telegram Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as President, 1 page, quarto, Head Quarters Armies of the United States, City Point, [Virginia], 5 p.m., April 3, 1865. To the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, in Washington D.C.