A Rare Abraham Lincoln Quote from Shakespeare's Othello

March 1, 1848

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A Rare Abraham Lincoln Quote from Shakespeare's Othello
Autograph Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 414

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      Sometimes, reading about something just isn’t enough. There is a need to signal its importance; to make it, even, one’s own. A reader, then, might cut from a newspaper a clipping, and carry it in a wallet or pocket. Take, for example, President Lincoln. On the day of his death Abraham Lincoln carried in his wallet nine newspaper clippings, including one from 1863 lambasting him as “rough, ill-educated, empty minded,” yet capable of eloquently appreciating Shakespeare.

      The eight other clippings in Lincoln’s wallet, as befit a president, were political: party platforms, wartime maneuvers, endorsements. But the clipping about his ostensibly unlikely love of Shakespeare was of a different nature. Equal parts insulting and praiseful, it was deeply personal – and meant enough to Lincoln that he carried it with him for two tumultuous years. 

      What Lincoln really thought, or deeply felt, was almost always what he kept to himself. Whether, of course, like many reticent if literary people, he found in Shakespeare a voice for what he could not, or would not, say himself, is mere conjecture. What is solid fact is he carried a clipping in his wallet, ready evidence that he was not what he appeared.

      Lincoln liked to quote Shakespeare in conversation. Sometimes, too, he would read from the plays aloud, to family, friends, and even strangers. What he did not do, but rarely, was quote Shakespeare in letters. But here, writing to Jesse Lynch, a political ally, in 1848, having no need to disguise, he draws deep to make clear his opinion of the end of the Mexican War:

      I suppose "Othello's occupation’s gone" - All hands here seem to think the war is over - that the treaty sent on here by Trist will be ratified…

      The quotation, from Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, speaks to the folly of power, the pomp of war, and the transitory uselessness of victory in what Lincoln saw as a disreputable and immoral war:

         Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

         And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats

         The immortal Jove's dread clamors counterfeit

         Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone! (3.3.347)

                                                                      Act 3, Scene 3         

      The young Lincoln, for whom the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare were the earliest, and almost sole, staples of his literacy, would seem to have learned to write from Shakespeare: his Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural, and in his thousands upon thousands of letters, long and short, strongly suggest that it wasn’t in just what Shakespeare said, but how he said it, that Lincoln found his own extraordinary voice.

      Autograph Letter Signed, as Congressman, 1 page, oblong quarto, Washington, March 1, 1848. To Jesse Lynch.
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      Washington, March 1, 1848

      Friend Lynch:

      Your letter of the 13th Feb. accompanying a recommendation of many citizens of Robt. Irwin for a lieutenancy, has been received.  I suppose "Othello's occupation's gone" - All hands here seem to think the war is over - that the treaty sent on here by Trist will be ratified - If, however, a chance presents, I will do the very best I can -

      Excuse the shortness of this letter.  I am really very much hurried.

      Yours truly
      A. Lincoln

      Jesse Lynch