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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      Background

      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. Why, then, is the obvious question; murky, the surest answer. Yet Shakespeare being the lynchpin, best let him be the guide: “Every why,” he wrote – in The Comedy of Errors - “hath a wherefore.”

      “Lincoln” said his law partner of 16 years, William Herndon, was the most “shut-mouthed man who ever lived.” Another longtime friend, Leonard Swett, pushed that thought even further. “There was never a greater mistake,” he said, then to regard Lincoln as “a frank, guileless, or unsophisticated man.” What Lincoln really thought, or deeply felt, was almost always what he kept to himself. Like Hamlet, Lincoln too had “that within which passeth show.” Whether, of course, like many reticent of 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. Perhaps this was part and parcel of his humility, as when, accepting the honor a book’s dedication, he yet begged “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” [Shapell Manuscript Collection, #1701, Lincoln to Kelley, October 13, 1860.] A man who had less than a year of formal education in his life might see himself – or be seen – reaching, to pepper his correspondence with Shakespearian allusions. But here, writing to 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 occupations 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:

      O now forever

      Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!

      Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars

      That makes ambition virtue. O Farewell!

      Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

      The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear piercing fife

      the royal banner, and all quality,

      Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

      And O! you mortal engines, whose rude throats

      The immortal Jove's dread clamors counter feit

      Farewell! Othello's occupations's gone. (3.3.347)

      Act 3, Scene 3 

      Perhaps yet another reason Lincoln so rarely quoted in writing the author he most admired was that Shakespeare’s works were more than what Fred Kaplan, in his study of Lincoln as a writer, called Lincoln’s “secular bible”: they also served as a stylistic guide. The young frontiersman 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. Lincoln’s 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
      Magnolia
      Ills.