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Seward vs. Lincoln

William Seward’s suggestions for Lincoln’s first inaugural:

I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln’s edits:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds 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.

The received wisdom is that Seward’s passage is fine, but Lincoln’s edits take the day. John Updike:

A speaking intimacy and, with it, a compelling urgency and warmth were achieved through simplification and a subtly improved concreteness. ‘Fellow country-men and brethren’ became ‘friends’, ‘hearths’ became ‘hearthstones’, and Seward’s forced ‘mystic chords. . . patriot graves. . . hearts. . . hearths. . . ancient music. . . guardian angel’ trope was deftly broken into separate components; especially striking is the way in which the upward glance at the supposed ‘guardian angel of the nation’ was turned inward, to the ‘better angels of our nature.’ Like Twain, Lincoln pared Latinate rotundity from American English and conjured music from plain words.

William Safire:

Do speakers of political language today make that kind of creative and editing effort to persuade and inspire? Not often. If they did, would it work? Styles change with the times, and Seward’s style may seem florid to us now, but Lincoln’s improvement — in the rhythm of eight phrases separated by commas, with mystic chords swelling the chorus leading to angels — produced a soaring simplicity that moved his immediate audience and reverberates in the national memory.