February 12

Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the City of Washington, D.C. have from time to time been prevailed upon to say a few words about printing, generally about the time of Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. It is rare indeed that any President of the United States has mentioned the art prior to his elevation to the first office of the land. The man born on this date in 1809 was an exception in this, as in many another quality. On the eve of his fiftieth birthday, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College at Jacksonville in a dissertation called the Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions. It was so titled because it was a revised version of an earlier talk on the same subject presented at Bloomington, Illinois the previous April. Printers may recall that it was in Bloomington that Frederic W. Goudy was born just a few years later.

Discussing the effects of a written language on science and invention, Mr. Lincoln pointed out its limitations and went on to say:

“At length printing came. It gave ten thousand copies of any written matter, quite as cheaply as ten were given before; and consequently a thousand minds were brought into the field where there was but one before. This was a great gain; and history shows a great change corresponding to it, in point of time. I will venture to consider it, the true termination of that period called ‘the dark ages.’ Discoveries, inventions, and improvements followed rapidly, and have been increasing their rapidity ever since. The effects could not come all at once. It required time to bring them out; and they are still coming. The capacity to read, could not be multiplied as fast as the means of reading. Spelling books just began to go into the hands of the children; but the teachers were not very numerous, or very competent; so that it was safe to infer they did not advance so speedily as they do now-a-days. It is very probable—almost certain—that the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings, but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To emancipate the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform. It is difficult for us, now and here to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take to break its shackles, and to get a habit of freedom of thought established. It is, in this connection, a curious fact that a new country is most favorable—almost necessary—to the emancipation of thought, and the consequent advancement of civilization and the arts.”

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