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Lincoln’s Way With Words

March 2023
1min read

I enjoyed Geoffrey C. Ward’s article “A. Lincoln, Writer” (“The Life and Times,” September/October). For me the power and beauty of Lincoln’s writing lay in its clarity of expression together with an analytical, almost mathematical, argument. A good example of Lincoln’s ability is his simple yet devastatingly effective reply to those who questioned his constitutional authority to take some of his wartime measures: “My oath to preserve the Constitution … imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation—of which the Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected … but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong I assumed this ground and now avow to it. I could not feel that to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if to save slavery or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together.”

The fact that Lincoln’s literary ability was not the product of a formal education can perhaps explain his unique style. Lincoln is said to have believed that a college education could stifle original thinking and in a speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum said, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” A thoroughly self-made, selfreliant man, Lincoln did not choose the “beaten path” with regard to his writing. If he had, we’d probably be reading the pasteurized, tear-jerking “messages” that so often characterize contemporary presidential addresses, instead of the crisp, reasoned, and persuasive prose that is, among other things, the legacy of Lincoln.

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