Lincoln’s Voice

A trailer for the Lincoln movie, directed by Stephen Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which is being released on November 9th.  I will go see it and review it.  Heaven knows that I doubt that it could possibly be worse than Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  Capturing Lincoln on film is difficult.  He was a complex man who lived in complex times, and trying to say much of substance about him in a two hour film is probably a futile undertaking.

Some criticisms of the trailer have arisen, most centering on the objection that Day-Lewis does not sound like Lincoln.  Of course, since Lincoln died 22 years before the first primitive sound recordings we will never hear his voice.  We do have a number of contemporary accounts as to his voice.

Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered. –William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887

Other accounts emphasise Lincoln’s frontier Hoosier (Indiana) accent, his twang, and his pronunciation of certain words (Mr. “Cheerman”!)  I am familiar with the Hoosier accent, having grown up in Paris, Illinois on the Indiana border.  My relatives who did not attend college retain their Hoosier accents, and it is quite a striking accent, especially if one has not heard it before, which was certainly the case for most of those who heard Lincoln give speeches in the East.

I have always thought that Hal Holbrook, in his portrayal of Lincoln in the miniseries Sandburg’s Lincoln which was broadcast in 1974 and was recently released on DVD, came closest to sounding as Lincoln sounded.

Holbrook has Lincoln speak with a twang and a strong Hoosier accent, and I think that is how Lincoln sounded, although that is all speculation with our limited amount of evidence.

However, it is what Lincoln said, and not the voice that he used to say the words, which is important.  These words I believe are of special significance to America in 2012:

 The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.


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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. ” … Disenthrall ourselves … ” – that is a good way to consider media bias, for listeners and, especially for spokesmen.

    He said, “Study the Constitution!

    Let every American, every lover of liberty, every wellwisher to his posterity swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others.

    As the patriots of ’76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and laws let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor.

    Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own and his children’s liberty …

    Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges,
    Let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs,
    Let it be preached from the pulpit,
    proclaimed in legislative halls,
    and enforced in courts of justice.

    And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation, and, in particular,
    a reverence for the Constitution.”

  2. Spare us O Lord, from what a Spielberg/Doris Kearns-Goodwin view of the War for Southern Independence and the Lincoln presidency would be. I’ll just guess, slavery first, middle, and last as the one and only issue of importance.

    They filmed this here in Richmond, ironically enough.

  3. I think Tom that the main problem in the film will be a “dumbing down” of Lincoln. Lincoln could put more thought into fewer words than any other writer I have encountered, and complexity and films today are a poor match. However, I will reserve judgment until I see the film. (Having Sally “You like me! You really like me!” Fields as the First Lady might add a nice touch of accurate hysteria to Mary Todd Lincoln!)

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