“The Better Angels Of Our Nature” How Charles Dickens Influenced Abraham Lincoln
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Here’s the story of an obscure but beautiful quotation from Charles Dickens that found its way into the First Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln.
In 1861, before his inauguration, Lincoln showed a draft of what he intended to say to William Seward, his Secretary of State. Seward recommended that Lincoln conclude with conciliatory words, and sketched out a few sentences for Lincoln to consider.
Seward’s rough draft, which has been preserved, contains the expression “better angel.” Twenty years earlier, in 1841, Charles Dickens had used “our better angels” in his novel “Barnaby Rudge.” There is no evidence that Lincoln read Dickens, but Seward did.
Lincoln read Seward’s rough draft in which Seward had scratched out the words”better angel” and substituted in their place “guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln then turned Seward’s discarded two words into the memorable expression “better angels of our nature.”
The quotation from Dickens is below. I like the entire quotation very much, not just because it contains the germ of a concept that Abraham Lincoln immortalized, but because of its wise and spiritual insight.
“The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning…
“It is curious to imagine these people of the world, busy in thought, turning their eyes towards the countless spheres that shine above us, and making them reflect the only images their minds contain…So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed. (italics added)
One final comment. Shakespeare used the words “better angel” in “Othello,” and we know for certain that Lincoln had read “Othello.” The expression is used in a remark made by Gratiano, a nobleman from Venice, after the death of Desdemona to describe enlightened and restrained human impulses. Gratiano speaks of pushing away the ‘better angel” which would hold him back from taking bloody revenge on Othello.
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