- Historic Sites
A. Lincoln, Writer
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
Before the movie version of Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois opened across the country in 1940, a special White House screening was arranged for Franklin Roosevelt, for whom Sherwood was then acting as speechwriter. The star, Raymond Massey, sat between Roosevelt and Sherwood, and after Lincoln’s train chuffed slowly out of Springfield past his weeping fellow citizens and the lights came on, he remembered, FDR shook his head and muttered, “… and he wrote all those speeches himself!”
Roosevelt’s envy was understandable. Lincoln did indeed write all those speeches—and all those letters and legal briefs, telegrams and presidential proclamations, as well. “Alone among American Presidents,” Edmund Wilson once argued, “it is possible to imagine Lincoln, growing up in a different milieu, becoming a distinguished writer of a not merely political kind.” Wilson was a little hard on the competition: Thomas Jefferson wrote elegantly on everything from architecture to English prosody, after all, and the vigorous prose of FDR’s own cousin Theodore helped pay the bills at Oyster Bay between campaigns. And Lincoln’s own literary forays beyond the realms of law and politics sometimes went alarmingly astray. Here, for example, the author of the Gettysburg Address turns to verse to memorialize the same battle: “In eighteen sixty three, with pomp, and mighty swell,/Me and Jeff’s Confederacy, went forth to sack Phildel/The Yankees got arter us, and giv us particular hell,/And we skedaddled back again, and didn’t sack Phil-del.”
But as Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858 and 1859–1865, the two new volumes compiled by the editors of the splendid Library of America series ($30 each), attest, Lincoln was unmistakably the greatest writer among our statesmen. Words were Lincoln’s way up and out of the grinding poverty into which he had been born. If the special genius of America was that it provided an environment in which “every man can make himself,” as Lincoln believed, pen and ink were the tools with which he did his self-carpentering.
Writing, he once said, “is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it—great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.…” Lincoln still converses with us through his writing; his carefully crafted words still most memorably define the struggle through which he led us.
Professor Don E. Fehrenbacher, today’s preeminent Lincoln scholar and twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, has winnowed through the 4,776 pages of Roy P. Basler’s authoritative but daunting eleven-volume Collected Works to yield the 795 documents he considers most important to understanding Lincoln and his time. Everything you would hope to find is here—the “house divided” speech, the complete Lincoln-Douglas debates, the magisterial first and second inaugurals, even the heartfelt, if misinformed, letter to Mrs. Bixby—but there is also much that will seem fresh to all but the most omniscient Lincoln enthusiast.
Lincoln liked to pretend a becoming naiveté about politics. “You know I never was a contriver,” he once told a delegation of squabbling Republican leaders, presumably managing to keep his face straight. “I don’t know much about how things are done in politics.” In fact, he knew all there was to know, had learned it the hard way, maneuvering to excel among the Whigs of Illinois and, when that grand old party died, helping first to forge and then to lead to national victory an entirely new party. As his law partner, William Herndon, wrote, “That man who thinks Lincoln calmly sat down and gathered his robes around him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln.” Still, what is perhaps most surprising about the documents that make up the first, pre-presidential volume is how much of Lincoln’s life was taken up with the gritty mechanics of getting elected and staying ahead of his rivals. His letters are filled with knowing judgments on the motives of friends and enemies alike, judgments made all the shrewder because he understood his own ambitions so well. “Remembering that Peter denied his Lord with an oath after most solemnly protesting that he never would,” he wrote an old Illinois ally on the eve of the Republican convention that nominated him for the Presidency in 1860, “I will not swear I will make no committals but I do think I will not.”
To read Lincoln’s prose, Fehrenbacher has suggested elsewhere, “is to see him in action, pursuing practical results, rather than ultimate truth,” but he also was forced by history to confront thorny moral issues of a kind to which most politicians are mercifully immune, and he sometimes wrote a page or two just to puzzle out a position for himself before trying it on the voters. His “fragments” on government and slavery and the vagaries of the divine will are well known, but his refutation of Slavery Ordained by God, an 1857 book by the Reverend Frederick A. Ross that strained to provide theological underpinnings for the South’s peculiar institution, was new at least to me: