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:
“The sum of pro-slavery theology seems to be this: ‘Slavery is not universally right , nor yet universally wrong ; it is better for some people to be slaves, and, in such cases, it is the Will of God that there be such.’”
“Certainly there is no contending against the will of God, but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases. For instance we will suppose the Rev. Dr. Ross has a slave named Sambo, and the question is: ‘Is it the will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave or be set free?’ The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation—the Bible—gives none—or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble as to its meaning. No one thinks of asking Sambo’s opinion on it. So, at last, it comes to this, that Dr. Ross, is to decide the question. And while he considers it, he sits in the shade, with gloves on his hands and subsists on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning sun. If he decides that God wills Sambo to continue a slave, he thereby retains his own comfortable position, but if he decides that God wills Sambo to be free, he thereby has to walk out of the shade, throw off his gloves, and delve for his own bread. Will Dr. Ross be actuated by that perfect impartiality which has ever been considered most favorable to correct decisions?”
There is precious little of a personal nature in these pages. Lincoln was in truth the “shut-mouthed,” unconfiding man Herndon said he was, and most of his writing is sober and formal; little of the humor and vivid barnyard-and-backwoods imagery that enlived his conversation ever made it to the page. But here and there, even during the grim war years, his writings reveal the human being behind the mask of Father Abraham. “The lady—bearer of this—says she has two sons who want to work,” he scrawled to an aide in 1861. “Set them at it, if possible. Wanting to work is so rare a merit that it should be encouraged.”
Lincoln’s legendary patience turns out to have had its limits. “It seems to me,” he wrote on April 28, 1863, “Mr. [Francis L.] Capen knows nothing about the weather in advance. He told me three days ago that it would not rain again till the 30th. of April or 1st of May. It is raining now & has been for ten hours. I can not spare any more time to Mr. Capen.”
The President’s frustration at George McClellan’s too gingerly ways and his forebearance at Joseph Hooker’s boastful ones are familiar to anyone who has followed the Union’s grim fortunes in the first years of the Civil War, but here he deals sternly with the “slows” that afflicted a lesser Union commander, Nathaniel P. Banks, in the autumn of 1862:
“Early last week you left me in high hope with your assurance that you would be off [to command the Department of the Gulf, with orders to open up the Mississippi] … at the end of that week, or early in this. It is now the end of this, and I have just been overwhelmed and confounded with the sight of a requisition made by you, which I am assured, can not be filled, and got off within an hour short of two months! I inclose you a copy of the requisition, in some hope that it is not genuine—that you have never seen it.
“My dear General, this expanding and piling up of impedimenta , has been, so far, almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned. If you had the articles of this requisition upon the wharf, with the necessary animals to make them of any use, and forage for the animals, you could not get vessels together in two weeks to carry the whole, to say nothing of your twenty thousand men, and having the vessels, you could not put the cargoes aboard in two weeks more. And, after all, where you are going, you have no use for them. … You must be off before Congress meets. You would be better off any where, and especially where you are going, for not having a thousand wagons, doing nothing but hauling forage to feed the animals that draw them, and taking at least two thousand men to care for the wagons and animals, who otherwise might be two thousand good soldiers. Now dear General, do not think this an ill-natured letter—it is the very reverse. The simple publication of this requisition would ruin you. Very truly your friend, A. Lincoln.”
Fehrenbacher’s collection ends with a short note, written on one of the last two days of the President’s life: “No pass is necessary now to authorize any one to go to & return from Petersburg & Richmond. People go & return just as they did before the war.” As these rich and absorbing new volumes again make clear, it was not merely the great armies Lincoln commanded but the words he mobilized that brought about that happy result.