Abraham Lincoln Declares He is Not a "Man of Great Learning, or a Very Extraordinary one in Any Respect"

October 13, 1860

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Abraham Lincoln Declares He is Not a "Man of Great Learning, or a Very Extraordinary one in Any Respect"
Autograph Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 1701

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      Background

      It tells us all we will ever need to know about Lincoln’s character that, in accepting the honor of having a law book dedicated to him, he begs
       
      that the inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect.
       
      Character is fate, the ancient Greeks insisted – and it would be character, and not knowledge or policy or even politics, which would determine how Lincoln would act when the chips were down, as they always were in his presidency.
       
      Lincoln’s identification of himself as unexceptional in any way meant that he was intrinsically egalitarian and his standard, the golden rule. Even after the epic debates of his 1858 Senate campaign catapulted him to national prominence, he was so modest that he wrote, in 1859, “I do not think myself fit for the presidency.” But because presidential leadership is by definition selective, and in wartime, exalted, Lincoln’s humility was extremely unusual, and deeply compelling. For this as much as anything, he was, as Walt Whitman noted, the grandest figure on the crowded canvas of the drama of the nineteenth century: this letter shows why.


      Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, marked “Private”, octavo, Springfield, Illinois, October 13, 1860. To the Hon. William D. Kelley. 

      Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.


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      Private

      Springfield, Ills. Oct- 13. 1860

      Hon. William D. Kelly [sic]
       
      My dear Sir:

      Yours of the 6th, asking permission to inscribe your new legal work to me, is received. Gratefully accepting the proffered honor, I give the leave, begging only that the inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect --

      Yours very truly

      A. LINCOLN.