Collaborative writing

[Photo of William Seward]Bill and I were kind of chuckling via email about the current covers of Newsweek and Time, the former reflecting my fixation with comparing Obama and Lincoln, and the latter picking up on Bill’s suggestion that our times may eventually cause a president to consider policies as drastic as some of Franklin Roosevelt’s.  (Bill was pointing specifically to “the 1933 Executive Order 6102, which required everyone to sell their gold to the government.”)

Bill expressed his surprise at Newsweek‘s claim that the lines quoted by Obama last week at Grant Park taken from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address (“We are not enemies, but friends. . . . “) weren’t Lincoln’s but William Seward’s.  That didn’t ring true, so I reread my history and found that Newsweek had oversimplified things.

The words are Lincoln’s, but he was working off of a revision sent to him by Seward, Lioncoln’s chief rival for the Republican nomination the year before and his choice for Secretary of State.   Seward’s revision: “I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren.” Lincoln’s revision of Seward’s revision: “I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Lincoln had sent his first draft to Seward originally, and Seward worked long and hard to take the bellicosity out of it.   Lincoln accepted Seward’s approach wholeheartedly.   Their collaboration on the speech produced one of the finest perorations in history.   Here’s Seward’s revised ending:

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 form 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.

Here’s Lincoln’s revision of Seward’s revision:

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 battle-field, 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.

And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, both political and personal, between the two men.   I think it’s also a testimony to the power of revision and of collaborative writing.

(I found this information in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, pages 324 – 326.)