Jun 082007

In a Reuters news item, David Alexander makes much of the misspellings in a newly found manuscript by Abraham Lincoln, written after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

“…A misspelling showed the rudimentary education of the 16th U.S. president, who was largely self-taught….”


“…Plante said in other writing Lincoln sometimes misspelled the word “literal” and sometimes spelled it correctly….”

Or maybe it’s Trevor Plante, the archivist who found the manuscript, who made much of it.

I wonder, though. Were these misspellings really the mark of a person with little formal education? Or were they pretty much typical of almost anyone at the time?

My impression, probably from reading books like Daniel Boorstin’s, “The Americans: The Colonial Experience” is that spelling took on an increasingly important role in American education throughout the 19th century. Noah Webster’s dictionary and spelling reform attempts helped get it going early in the century. But is it really the case that spelling would be such a big deal already by the 1860s?

I don’t have any manuscript transcripts in my office from that period, but I have some from the 1820s and 1830s. No, the 1830s are not the 1860s, but it’s something to look at. Ellen Whitney’s. In Ellen Whitney’s manuscript transcripts from the Black Hawk war there is a private letter from Lewis Cass dated Nov 30 1832 in which he writes, “I am allways happy to receive…”. Cass had been educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, which I presume was a cut above the log cabins where Lincoln went to school.

There are letters from Zachary Taylor that contain misspellings, but Taylor’s education probably was similar to Lincoln’s, so that doesn’t help much.

So far I haven’t found any misspellings in any of Gen. Winfield Scott’s letters. And there is a long letter from Cass to Scott with nary a spelling error. (I don’t count the occasional dropped letter in a word in a handwritten manuscript as a spelling error.)

On the other hand, other letters from people who presumably had a lesser education are full of spelling errors.

So maybe Plante is right. Maybe by the 1860s an educated person would consider it important to get the spelling right. I still don’t know for sure, but I certainly don’t have evidence to contradict what he said.

Edited formatting, 8-Jun-2007