The Civil War & Shakespeare

In a different age, politicians quoting Shakespeare might not have gotten far with voters; in Bard-mad 19th-century America, it was a sure way to win over a skeptical audience.

A century and a half ago, as Lincoln was preparing to assume the office to which he'd been elected in November 1860, Congress was vigorously debating the issues that were tearing a nation asunder. A sense of impending doom was palpable, with delegates from the Deep South convinced that the incoming administration was eager to deprive them of inalienable rights, and delegates from the North insisting that such fears were groundless. Many of the elected officials who took part in these deliberations quoted Lord Byron, John Milton and other poets to buttress their arguments. The author who surfaced most frequently, however, was William Shakespeare, a source of acknowledged wisdom whose influence rivaled holy writ.

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