A Mighty Weapon

"Scholarly" is sometimes a term used to describe academic work or even mainstream trade books on history and politics that are boring. But the latest effort from Dr. Douglas Wilson entitled Lincoln's Sword is a scholarly work that illuminates a topic of fascination.

Utilizing original documents available at the Library of Congress and other libraries and archives he has pored over for years, Dr. Wilson, who is co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, dissects the works of Abraham Lincoln with clinical precision in an effort to examine the methodology President Lincoln employed in his writing, writing that Dr. Wilson persuasively argues ranks among the very best of American letters. As a professor of English, he knows of what he speaks.

Considered an ill-mannered, nearly illiterate rube (it was asked about Lincoln who would write his state papers for him), Dr. Wilson describes and documents President Lincoln's brilliant use of antithesis, adherence to his own words and their meanings, yet a willingness to let others amend his remarks, his uncanny knack for persuasive, and logical argument in meeting political ends, all amid the clamor, unceasing criticism, and sorrow the Civil War brought down upon Lincoln's White House.

Dr. Wilson selects familiar speeches (such as Gettysburg and the inaugural addresses) as well as letters in response to Horace Greeley and a group of Albany Democrats, and personal letters President Lincoln knew would be made public to uncover President Lincoln's range and adroitness in exploiting opportunities to get his point across, and the writing and re-writing required to fine tune each message. The strength of "Lincoln's Sword" is that while the works are familiar, the way at which they were arrived is not. As Dr. Wilson describes and details, one of President Lincoln's strengths as a writer was his "state of readiness," the jotting down of thoughts on scraps of paper that eventually coalesced at exactly the right moment in time.

Dr. Wilson's own methodology in this book's construction and scope may well be summed up by the following paragraph on page 234, in which the author analyzes the first line of the Gettysburg Address:
"In many respects, the linchpin of that extraordinary first sentence is surely the word ‘proposition.' To the discriminating eye, it seems at first to be a word out of place, which is why both Seward and Senator Charles Sumner were said to have objected to it. Matthew Arnold is supposed to have refused to read any further. But as Sumner eventually saw, there is no other word for what Lincoln wanted to say. It perfectly conveys the sense in which the most revolutionary of American ideals, however revered, was not a universally accepted principle, but was instead something that needed to be demonstrated. If Lincoln had already formulated this template by the time he heard about the memorial cemetery being established at Gettysburg, the word that would have helped make the connection was ‘dedication.' That the ‘new nation' in his Euclidean version of the founding is dedicated to the ideal of equality provides an opportunity to connect it linguistically with a ceremony to dedicate a national cemetery for fallen soldiers. How a talented writer might exploit such a connection is given a definitive illustration in the Gettysburg Address."
It is all there: President Lincoln's insistence upon using exactly the correct word to convey a certain meaning, his allowance of others to review his script and make suggestions before presentation, the importance of the aural when writing, and his sense of timing and proportion. Dr. Wilson does not merely examine speeches; he picks apart phrasing and construction as the president might have done in such painstaking manner.

Any book that so minutely examines any writer's methodology, draft upon draft of speeches and letters, and ruminations on President Lincoln's love affair with commas is bound to become tedious in spots. The chapter on the Gettysburg Address, for instance, seems at times to be on quest to set a record for usage of the word "foolscap," and this book is certainly not for those with a passing interest in the 16th president or looking for a handy guide of anecdotes from Lincoln's life and presidency.

Yet even in the cases in which the casual reader's eyes might tire, Dr. Wilson realizes the importance of painting the entire picture surrounding President Lincoln's writing is paramount, and the author is intent on exhausting the vast array of original documents edited in Lincoln's hand he examined, many of which are illustrated in the book. Just as President Lincoln left nothing to chance when crafting a speech, Dr. Wilson leaves no stone unturned in his quest to place us in the rooms in which President Lincoln composes his masterpieces, down to the type of paper (foolscap) he used for drafts and revisions. Each of President Lincoln's presidential utterances had a purpose. So it is with Dr. Wilson's book. Any other blueprint would have rendered the book incomplete. Yet Dr. Wilson artfully brings wrings context and meaning from the seeming minutiae of original documents.

Lincoln's Sword is invaluable not only for Lincolnphiles and students of history, but for students of language, literature, and rhetoric. In examining the laborious manner in which President Lincoln wrote and thought, Dr. Wilson effectively demonstrates that of all the strengths Abraham Lincoln brought to his presidency - and they were considerable - his ultimate weapon fit neatly between thumb and fingers and defined the Union like no other before or since.

Matt May welcomes comments at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his website is mattymay.blogspot.com
"Scholarly" is sometimes a term used to describe academic work or even mainstream trade books on history and politics that are boring. But the latest effort from Dr. Douglas Wilson entitled Lincoln's Sword is a scholarly work that illuminates a topic of fascination.

Utilizing original documents available at the Library of Congress and other libraries and archives he has pored over for years, Dr. Wilson, who is co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, dissects the works of Abraham Lincoln with clinical precision in an effort to examine the methodology President Lincoln employed in his writing, writing that Dr. Wilson persuasively argues ranks among the very best of American letters. As a professor of English, he knows of what he speaks.

Considered an ill-mannered, nearly illiterate rube (it was asked about Lincoln who would write his state papers for him), Dr. Wilson describes and documents President Lincoln's brilliant use of antithesis, adherence to his own words and their meanings, yet a willingness to let others amend his remarks, his uncanny knack for persuasive, and logical argument in meeting political ends, all amid the clamor, unceasing criticism, and sorrow the Civil War brought down upon Lincoln's White House.

Dr. Wilson selects familiar speeches (such as Gettysburg and the inaugural addresses) as well as letters in response to Horace Greeley and a group of Albany Democrats, and personal letters President Lincoln knew would be made public to uncover President Lincoln's range and adroitness in exploiting opportunities to get his point across, and the writing and re-writing required to fine tune each message. The strength of "Lincoln's Sword" is that while the works are familiar, the way at which they were arrived is not. As Dr. Wilson describes and details, one of President Lincoln's strengths as a writer was his "state of readiness," the jotting down of thoughts on scraps of paper that eventually coalesced at exactly the right moment in time.

Dr. Wilson's own methodology in this book's construction and scope may well be summed up by the following paragraph on page 234, in which the author analyzes the first line of the Gettysburg Address:
"In many respects, the linchpin of that extraordinary first sentence is surely the word ‘proposition.' To the discriminating eye, it seems at first to be a word out of place, which is why both Seward and Senator Charles Sumner were said to have objected to it. Matthew Arnold is supposed to have refused to read any further. But as Sumner eventually saw, there is no other word for what Lincoln wanted to say. It perfectly conveys the sense in which the most revolutionary of American ideals, however revered, was not a universally accepted principle, but was instead something that needed to be demonstrated. If Lincoln had already formulated this template by the time he heard about the memorial cemetery being established at Gettysburg, the word that would have helped make the connection was ‘dedication.' That the ‘new nation' in his Euclidean version of the founding is dedicated to the ideal of equality provides an opportunity to connect it linguistically with a ceremony to dedicate a national cemetery for fallen soldiers. How a talented writer might exploit such a connection is given a definitive illustration in the Gettysburg Address."
It is all there: President Lincoln's insistence upon using exactly the correct word to convey a certain meaning, his allowance of others to review his script and make suggestions before presentation, the importance of the aural when writing, and his sense of timing and proportion. Dr. Wilson does not merely examine speeches; he picks apart phrasing and construction as the president might have done in such painstaking manner.

Any book that so minutely examines any writer's methodology, draft upon draft of speeches and letters, and ruminations on President Lincoln's love affair with commas is bound to become tedious in spots. The chapter on the Gettysburg Address, for instance, seems at times to be on quest to set a record for usage of the word "foolscap," and this book is certainly not for those with a passing interest in the 16th president or looking for a handy guide of anecdotes from Lincoln's life and presidency.

Yet even in the cases in which the casual reader's eyes might tire, Dr. Wilson realizes the importance of painting the entire picture surrounding President Lincoln's writing is paramount, and the author is intent on exhausting the vast array of original documents edited in Lincoln's hand he examined, many of which are illustrated in the book. Just as President Lincoln left nothing to chance when crafting a speech, Dr. Wilson leaves no stone unturned in his quest to place us in the rooms in which President Lincoln composes his masterpieces, down to the type of paper (foolscap) he used for drafts and revisions. Each of President Lincoln's presidential utterances had a purpose. So it is with Dr. Wilson's book. Any other blueprint would have rendered the book incomplete. Yet Dr. Wilson artfully brings wrings context and meaning from the seeming minutiae of original documents.

Lincoln's Sword is invaluable not only for Lincolnphiles and students of history, but for students of language, literature, and rhetoric. In examining the laborious manner in which President Lincoln wrote and thought, Dr. Wilson effectively demonstrates that of all the strengths Abraham Lincoln brought to his presidency - and they were considerable - his ultimate weapon fit neatly between thumb and fingers and defined the Union like no other before or since.

Matt May welcomes comments at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his website is mattymay.blogspot.com