Jon's Reviews > Selected Speeches and Writings

Selected Speeches and Writings by Abraham Lincoln
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Jun 12, 09

bookshelves: part-read
Read in June, 2009

I decided upon this book to learn more about Lincoln the writer, not Lincoln the man. I can say with confidence it is a wonderful tool if other readers decide to follow the same course that I did. If instead they want to better know Lincoln the man and the arc of his thought, this book may suffice, but I myself cannot provide the assurance.

By near every account Lincoln today is heralded the most eloquent American president; perhaps also the most fluent prose writer in American history. The second to me is doubtful. The first even I wonder of its truth. Especially in the company of many of the founding fathers, such as Jefferson and Madison, whose presidential speeches I confess I am not familiar with, but nonetheless were noted for their facility with words, I wonder if such a spanning declaration of Lincoln's supremacy can so easily be asserted (Jefferson most of all for his draft of the Declaration of Independence "We hold these truth to be self-evident...").

Whether it can or cannot, Lincoln is certainly an accomplished writer, and is more than worthy of study for those interested in the elements of composition.

Questions abound about Lincoln's style, but foremost before the rest: what is the secret of Lincoln's prose? What explains the power and the potency that it projects?

The pedestrian answer, which is often offered, is that it is his poetic diction and florid use of language. There is a lot to recommend this explanation. Lincoln certainly commands his vocabulary. He often decorates his prose with verbal ornaments. In his writing there appears frequently studied use of imagery. For example "They were pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason." Or verbal inventions such as "Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operation..." And another example "Like a rejected lover, making merry at the wedding of his rival, the President felicitates hugely over the late Presidential election."

That much admitted however, it is wrong to think this is the spark of Lincoln's writing. It is not. More myth than maxim in fact. It cannot be the true spring of his rhetorical power since the high and heroic moments of in the writing--the points where his force is at is maximum--do not issue from its verbal particles. They appear at the finish to highlight the conclusion; they do not to constitute it.

The source instead is Lincoln's keen sense for the assembly of an argument's opening, a careful construction of the matter for discussion, and then the delicate but decisive manner in which he maneuvers to resolve it. Observe that in all his speeches the exordium to it often long, and always elaborate. Lincoln is careful to explain as much what he is not saying, as what he is. He precedes his argumentation with reproofs from his political opponents. The tactic is to try and uncrowd the argumentative space before introducing his own. I would dare to say that Lincoln's openings are the real crown of his composition. And it is because of the posture they affect that Lincoln appears the considerate, sober, Solomonic, and unswerving character in his presentations.

There are other essential qualities to Lincoln's writing, which cannot be omitted. Foremost is the unusual syntax that defines all of Lincoln's writing. Even for the time it was distinctive, if inscrutable. What explains it I have not the faintest clue. An indelible impression from his biblical studies perhaps. I am not conversant enough with the King James bible to know if Lincoln's sentences resemble that form. But whatever the answer may be, his style persists through and across all his writing. Whether it is deliberately affected I cannot say. But it is certainly enduring. And, to his credit, Lincoln draws the full store of water from its well. For the reader who is reluctant to labor through difficult, awkward prose, his style quickly becomes secondhand, and steadily accessible.

The collection of documents contained with the book cover an array kinds of Lincoln's writings, from formal political addresses, to letters assigned to dear friends and family. They also traverse Lincoln's career, but mostly back-loaded, with focus on material from his presidency. The distribution is not fitted to any particular theme or subject. This makes the ideology of Lincoln's thought an imperfect object of this book. But the arrangement is well organized for the student of Lincoln's style. All his most famous speeches are included, both as President and before. Also included are some famous correspondence. The total assemblage is an ideal supply if what one wants is an abridged containment of Lincoln's writings. The only thing missing that deserves inclusion is Lincoln's editorial writing, which appeared frequently under pseudonym, in the time of his early adulthood. But that oversight is not a fatal flaw.

An additional feature of his writing that emerges from a review of this book is Lincoln's mood for distance. His thoughts sometimes are lonely, or dark, but they are rarely intimate. Everyone is addressed, even his wife, with a kind of professional officialness very becoming of a historic figure. It would go too far to say that Lincoln was never intimate in his writing, he is in his own way. But by contemporary standards Lincoln would come across as stiff. Essential to that impression is the discipline of his writing. Lincoln never lets agrip of his written poise. Next to his lawyerly style and sense for syntax, this compositional cool must be identified as an immanent feature.

Last for comment is the progress one can observe in the samples of Lincoln's writing. His early products are fine as they are, but don't manifest the confidence or power that distinguish his later works. For this reason his first speeches to the Young Men's Lyceum, or the House of Representatives, reveal mistakes in rhetoric that are noteworthy but subtle. They are not obscure moments, but both famous extracts by Lincoln in his career as a speechmaker. Nevertheless they lack the same argumentative effect that was accomplished in, for example, the 1861 special message to Congress. I would highlight three errors in particular that appear in Lincoln's early writing, but which in later entries have been amended.

First is confusion about what exactly is the reasoning that supports his main point. Though Lincoln is unsurpassed in his ability to frame and focus singularly on a problem, his argumentation in his early writing often untidy. Second Lincoln at times relied too much on eloquence to carry his argument. This is a facet of his that Lincoln himself was well aware of. And the Second Inaugural, his proudest moment, is an example of arrested eloquence but nonetheless produced enormous rhetorical effect. On this point Lincoln can surely be said to have overcome his earlier fault. Third Lincoln's lawyerly style of argument often made his writing oblique. Often he would first prove the principle, then establish his point by applying it in the particular case. This is fine as far as jurisprudential reasoning goes. It might also suffice for political philosophy. But the method does not translate as well into populist political oratory. Especially with the speech on the war with Mexico, Lincoln strays far from the course in order to make way to his conclusion.

But these are quibbles. Lincoln of course is a master of argument and persuasion. And this book is a wonderful study for those interested in examining his method and detailing specifics of his tactics and maneuvers at writing and argument. I recommend it.
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