Lincoln's Legacy of Language





Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, New York: Library of America,

898 pp. and 787 pp., $35 each

BY the time Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, grew old he could no longer sign his name. His mother, Nancy Hanks, never could. Their son took a road from the illiteracy of his parents to the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. What a road that was, what a distance to travel in a lifetime. Those travels are chronicled faithfully and beautifully in ``Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings'' under the guidance of editor Don E. Fehrenbacher, retired Stanford don, Pulitzer laureate, great Lincoln scholar.

This is the best selection of Lincoln's writings available today, perhaps the best ever. If one wants to be familiar with the moral underpinning of America and, at the same time, read the English language at its finest, there is hardly a better way than to turn to this handsomely boxed two-volume set from the Library of America.

Nearly all the texts come from the standard eight-volume ``The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,'' edited by Roy P. Basler, Marion Dolores Pratt, and Lloyd A. Dunlap (1953-55), which was supplemented by another volume in 1974. The set is about to be reissued by Rutgers University Press with another volume. But Fehrenbacher improves on the standard scholarly edition by a combination of sophisticated scholarship and good common sense. When Lincoln's pen rushed to write the name of his predecessor as ``Buchan,'' Fehrenbacher corrects it to ``Buchanan.'' When Lincoln cites the saying ``God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,'' Fehrenbacher points out the proverb's French ancestry and its entrance into English usage via Laurence Sterne's ``A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy'' (1768).

Footnote numbers do not intrude on the texts, and the notes are at the end of each volume. When a question arises while reading a text, the answer can often be found, with pleasure, in the notes. Most of these are very short, though there are exceptions, as when the editor provides the Associated Press version of the Gettysburg Address (less felicitous than what Lincoln wrote down later), explaining that these words ``may be closer to what he actually said.''

An excellent chronology closes each volume. Specialists may quibble a little about its contents - why not include, for example, the creation of the important sub-Cabinet-level Department of Agriculture in 1862, or the Union victory at Chattanooga the following year?

Nor is a year-by-year list conducive for the inclusion of developments that take place over time, though Fehrenbacher manages to smuggle in Lincoln's reading of Shakespeare, the Bible, Euclid, and humorists, but not economists Henry C. Carey and Francis Wayland. Yet all in all, the chronology provides the best 18-page ``life of Lincoln'' I know of.

More important, the selections of Lincoln's speeches and writings are excellent. To illustrate, both sides of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are included. The words of one would make insufficient sense without the counterpoint of the other, and, as it is, the reader has the chance to compare two literary styles. One may also savor the irony of Stephen Douglas finding a place in the American canon because of Lincoln. In 1856 the lanky Republican wrote:

``Twenty-two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me, the race of ambition has been a failure - flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, even, in foreign lands.''

Or as Lincoln said elsewhere, no one saw ``cabbages sprouting in my face.''

LITTLE is missing from this superb book. Lincoln's legal work is slightly represented, as it should be in literary volumes, and much of what he said on economics went unrecorded. A short section on Lincoln statements saved in diaries and letters of others might have been included, such as secretary John Hay's report: ``Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.'' The same might have been done with the Lincoln apocrypha, words that will forever be associated with him, regardless what the facts or scholars may say. ``You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.''

Finally, further examples of the most ordinary and unimportant Lincoln texts would have been welcome, such as the paragraph below. A first-rate scholarly study of Lincoln the writer is yet to be created, but a generation ago Jacques Barzun wrote a beautiful essay on the subject and in it included this example of what Barzun called Lincoln's ``mania ... for condensing any matter into the fewest words:''

``John Fitzgerald, 18 years of age, able-bodied, but without pecuniary means, came directly from Ireland to Springfield, Illinois, and there stopped, and sought employment, with no present intention of returning to Ireland, or going elsewhere. After remaining in the city some three weeks, part of the time employed, and part not, he fell sick, and became a public charge. It has been submitted to me, whether the city of Springfield, or the County of Sangamon is, by law, to bear the charge.''

Barzun then cited Lincoln's words from another occasion: ``This is not a long letter, but it contains the whole story.''

If even Lincoln's ordinary language can be remarkable, the best is unforgettable. Nearly all of these two volumes consist of his words and perhaps the best way to review them is to let Lincoln speak, knowing that a short glimpse is a sad substitute for the pleasure of reading him in full. ``Herewith is a little sketch, as you requested,'' Lincoln prefaced an autobiography on the eve of the presidency. ``There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.'' Earlier on a courtship gone awry: ``Others have been made fools of by the girls; but, this can never be with truth said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself.'' On his best friend moving away: ``How miserably things seem to be arranged in this world. If we have no friends, we have no pleasure; and if we have them, we are sure to lose them, and be doubly pained by the loss.''

ON the franchise, 1836: ``I go for all sharing the privileges of the government, who assist in bearing its burthens [sic] ... If alive on the first Monday in November, I shall vote for Hugh L. White for President. Very repectfully.''

Then in 1858: ``A house divided against itself....''

In 1859: ``I must, in candor, say I do not think myself fit for the Presidency.''

In 1860: ``The taste is in my mouth a little; and this, no doubt, disqualifies me, to some extent, to form correct opinions.''

1861: ``Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal hope, in the world?''

1862: ``The will of God prevails.'' But also: ``The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.''

``In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free ... we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.''

1863: ``Four score and seven years ago ... new birth of freedom ... government of the people, by the people, for the people....''

1864: ``If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.'' And the obverse of the same: ``I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has.''

1865: ``Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.'' ``With malice toward none; with charity for all; ... to bind up the nation's wounds.''

And Lincoln's Springfield farewell, 1860: ``Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.''

What a long road from the illiteracy of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. We can tie words to years to make mileposts, but their music and message is timeless.

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