By Dr. Daniel E. Worthington
As a young attorney and politician, Abraham Lincoln received a fair number of letters. Faced with scribbles and scrawls from hurried or barely literate supplicants, Lincoln struggled to fathom some of the handwriting. In a January 1848 letter to his law partner William H. Herndon, he expressed his exasperation with Louis W. Chandler, who had solicited Lincoln & Herndon to do legal research. Lincoln urged Herndon to resolve the Chandler matter, for he was bored with it, his annoyance compounded by Chandler’s “cursed, unreadable, and ungodly handwriting.”
Once Lincoln became a national political figure after the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the trickle of correspondence became a torrent. The sheer magnitude was overwhelming: he received hundreds if not thousands of handwritten letters each week. Accompanying the volume was the very real difficulty associated with reading unfamiliar or idiosyncratic handwriting. Some correspondents boasted excellent penmanship, spelling, and syntax; others less so.
International admirers or critics corresponded in their native tongues. In August 1860, David C. Davies of Utica, New York, sent Lincoln a twelve-page campaign biography in Welsh — a document that would intimidate the most intrepid transcriber.
Some took pains to make their letters legible. Because so many people had a “violent prejudice” against his handwriting, Horace Greeley had a December 1860 letter on secession copied to save the president-elect trouble comprehending it. Thaddeus Stevens, Reverdy Johnson, and others were less accommodating. Deciphering the handwriting, languages, and spelling was undoubtedly a challenge for Lincoln.
Rep. Thaddeus Stevens had great legislative skills but lousy penmanship.
More lousy penmanship, this time from lawyer and politician Reverdy Johnson.
One can only imagine what Lincoln thought when he received a letter from one Andrew B. Pickard of Mount Morris, Illinois, dated April 3, 1859. The first line read: “I hav long induljd de idea ov writing tu u sumtim on a sentens I hurd drop from ur lips in a speg u mad at Henri last Sumr.” (“I have long indulged the idea of writing to you sometime on a sentence I heard drop from you lips in a speech you made at Henry last summer.”)
Pickard was referencing a speech Lincoln made at Henry, Ill., during the Senatorial Campaign of 1858. Pickard criticized Lincoln for his supposed endorsement of the Fugitive Slave Law, quoting Lincoln as saying: “I am wiling de sgt ssud hav an efissent fujitiv slav lo—de constituussn garantez it tu dem.” (“I am willing the south should have an efficient fugitive slave law—the constitution guarantees it to them.”)
Just what was this unusual language? Pickard, a farmer and former Methodist minister who rendered his name as “A. B. Pikard,” claimed he used the phonetic alphabet, though he asked Lincoln to excuse his writing and spelling, raising questions about his level of literacy.
If he did indeed use the phonetic alphabet, he was among a number of Americans spelling phonetically. Spelling reform and phonetic alphabets traced their roots to the Enlightenment. In 1768, Benjamin Franklin proposed a phonetic method of spelling in his A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling. Phonetic alphabets proliferated in the mid-nineteenth century as linguists began to study the sounds of human speech and phonetics flowered into a science. Whether Pickard used any of these phonetic alphabets, or whether he just sounded out the words and spelled them as best he could, remains a mystery.
Pickard's second letter to the president, with his "I trust you will have no difficulty" underlined in blue.
Lincoln read and responded to Pickard’s letter, apparently defending his position on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law. Lincoln aficionados have neither determined the date of his letter nor uncovered an extant copy. Pickard responded to Lincoln on August 6, this time offering Lincoln some advice on how to fathom his unfamiliar script: “I trust u wil hav no difikulti in redin dis;—u se it is ritn in de Fonetik Alfabet, and if u determin a letr in eni plas u determin it in everi plas.” (“I trust you will have no difficulty in reading this;--you see it is written in the Phonetic Alphabet, and if you determine a letter in any place you determine it in every place.”)
Pickard lived in Mount Morris for several years before moving to Canon City, Colo., where he died in May 1894 at the age of ninety-four.
Worthington is director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.