Lincoln’s Most Beautiful Piece of Prose
For “Memorial Day”
Lincoln’s most beautiful piece of prose is not the Gettysburg oration, stirring indeed though that was, nor the inspired Second Inaugural, but the closing paragraph of the First Inaugural address. There were no ghostwriters then, and public men wrote their own speeches. But the First Inaugural, as Lincoln had written it, came to a blunt and severe ending-”With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of `Shall it be peace, or a sword?
When he showed the speech to Seward, Seward told him it was too stern and abrupt a conclusion and wrote out another paragraph which he submitted to him. In this paragraph Seward employed the metaphor of the chords of memory proceeding from the battlefields of the past and the patriot graves, and how they “will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”
Lincoln took this paragraph and with the touch of genius transmuted it to pure gold: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bond of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
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