Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lincoln on semi-colons (and slavery)

Andrew Sullivan nicely calls attention to a remark of Abraham Lincoln's on punctuation (quoted from "Personal Reminiscences of Lincoln" in Scribner's Monthly, 1877):
"With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it's a very useful little chap."
Absolutely right.

=> The context is also interesting. Lincoln was discussing how best to punctuate something he had just written, which was a brief account (almost resembling a blog post) of his conversation with a woman from Tennessee; at the top of the sheet of paper on which he wrote this anecdote (for publication), Lincoln himself titled it "The President's last, shortest, and best speech.":
On thursday of last week two ladies from Tennessee came before the President asking the release of their husbands held as prisoners of war at Johnson's Island. They were put off till friday, when they came again and were again put off to saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On saturday the President ordered the release of the prisoners, and then said to the lady: "You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men's faces, is not the sort of religion on which people can get to heaven!"
A. Lincoln
That judgment sounds plausible to me, too (though I can hardly claim to be "much of a judge of religion" either).

--Jeff Weintraub