Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words

Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words
by Douglas L. Wilson
(Knopf, 2006), hardcover, 352 pages

In the recent resurgence of books about Abraham Lincoln, which rivals the output of the early 1900s in quantity and significance, there have been a number of books about individual Lincoln speeches. Beginning with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills, recent books by Harold Holzer, Gabor Boritt, and Ronald White have focused on the Cooper Union Address, Gettysburg Address (again), and the Second Inaugural Address, respectively. These books, and others like them, show the context within which Lincoln wrote these famous speeches and include an often excellent examination of the meaning of Lincoln's words.

Douglas Wilson goes deeper, though, in his excellent study Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. While he refers to the context and meaning of the Lincoln works that he studies, he focuses on Lincoln's process of deliberately shaping his words. Focusing on writings and speeches of President Lincoln for which there are multiple drafts, Wilson paints a picture of a man who skillfully crafts his public statements through careful writing, editing, and re-writing.

Following an opening chapter on Lincoln's famous "Farewell Address," given as he departed his hometown Springfield for Washington to assume the presidency, where Wilson examines how Lincoln edited his extemporaneous remarks into a more polished speech for publication in newspapers, Wilson digs into several key Lincoln writings, including the famous speeches (First and Second Inaugurals and Gettysburg), key government papers (the Emancipation Proclamation, messages to Congress), and some public letters (notably Lincoln's famous response to Horace Greeley's editorial "The Prayer of Twenty Millions").

Wilson's observation that Lincoln meticulously prepared his words is not original; others have detailed how Lincoln carefully wrote things like the Cooper Union Address or the First Inaugural. In the case of the latter, attention has been paid to how Lincoln incorporated the advice of others who read a draft of his speech, famously Secretary of State-designate William Seward, into his final address. Wilson instead details how Lincoln consistently crafted his words and shows how the process allowed Lincoln to clarify his aims.

The analysis of the July 4, 1861 Message to Congress, in which Lincoln called for a massive increase in military spending to counter the rebellion, exemplifies Wilson's skillful attention to the nuances of Lincoln's drafting. One particularly interesting passage involves Lincoln's use of the word "sugar-coated" to describe the public rationale given by southern leaders supporting secession. The printer thought the word undignified; Wilson shows that it perfectly conveys the thrust of Lincoln's argument against secession.

At the end of this particular chapter, Wilson details some of the reactions to Lincoln's message, including a couple that remark favorably on Lincoln's skill as a writer. With these comments, Wilson begins the overarching and original argument of his book: Lincoln grew to recognize the power of his own words and became more confident and capable using them to shape public opinion and public understanding. Such an hypothesis is perhaps not novel; being a sophisticated reader able to demonstrate a shift in context through written words alone, though, is indeed unique. In the process, Wilson offers satisfying analyses of these selected writings and adds to the understanding of why Lincoln's writing remains so influential, while rather convincingly arguing that Lincoln's greatest attribute as a wartime leader was his disciplined writing.

It is not surprisingly that Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, offers such a sophisticated study, given his previous work with Lincoln. After spending years, with his co-director Rodney Davis, sorting through and editing all of the letters and interviews William Herndon collected about Lincoln's youth from people "who knew him when," Wilson then wrote the best account of Lincoln as a young adult: Honor's Voice, which won the Lincoln Prize in 1999. After spending years overseeing the transcription and annotation of the Library of Congress' collection of Lincoln materials, again with Davis, he wrote this fine volume, which won the Lincoln Prize in 2007.

It is difficult to quibble with Wilson's work. Certainly those without a working knowledge of the timeline of the Lincoln presidency will find it challenging to get their bearings, as Wilson supposes some familiarity with the Lincoln presidency and the issues surrounding the Civil War. However, the writing itself is clear and comprehensible, if not rather beguiling. It is a significant addition to the vast bibliography of Lincoln-related scholarship, particularly relating to Lincoln the writer, Lincoln the orator, and Lincoln the shaper of American memory.

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