Learning from Lincoln

Professor Douglas Wilson is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, a biographical account of Lincoln’s young adulthood (1831-1842), his early career in politics and “his emergence as a man to be reckoned with.” It is to a substantial extent based on the testimony of “Herndon’s informants,” the first-hand accounts collected by Lincoln’s law partner in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s death. Together with Rodney Davis, Wilson rescued these accounts from oblivion. In Honor’s Voice, Wilson also rescued them from disrepute, showing how they could be used to provide invaluable insight into Lincoln’s maturation.

Honor’s Voice bowled me over when I read it eight years ago. I had no idea how close it was possible to get to Lincoln, even in connection with what I had thought were legendary episodes of his life. Wilson devotes the first chapter of that book, for example, to an investigation of Lincoln’s wrestling match with Jack Armstrong at the time that Lincoln moved to New Salem in 1831. The match is famous in the annals of Lincoln lore.

Although Herndon collected several conflicting eyewitness accounts of the match, the accounts generally agree that Armstrong narrowly escaped losing to Lincoln by some sort of sharp practice. The match ended in rancor, but Lincoln and Armstrong immediately became fast friends. Wilson quotes one of Herndon’s informants on Lincoln’s years as an utterly impoverished young man in New Salem: “Lincoln had nothing[,] only plenty of friends.” The wrestling match is a case study with more than one lesson.

This year Professor Wilson returns with Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, which was just published last month. (He also returns with a new edition of the Herndon-Weik biography — Herndon’s Lincoln — building on his earlier research.) I spoke with Professor Wilson for twenty minutes last week about the book.

What’s he up to here? Having been commissioned by the Library of Congress to transcribe and annotate Lincoln’s papers (see here and here), Professor Wilson spent three years supervising a team working on the project. Lincoln’s Sword builds on that work to study Lincoln as a writer during his presidency.

I had been under the impression that Professor Wilson is a historian. In fact, his background is in English literature. He says that he became interested in Lincoln as a writer because so much of the testimony collected by Herndon regarding Lincoln’s early life shows Lincoln’s passion for writing, as early as age seven. Professor Wilson refers at one point to Edmund Wilson’s chapter on Lincoln as a writer in Patriotic Gore. In Lincoln’s Sword Professor Wilson comes at Lincoln from a similarly literary angle, placing Lincoln in the context of Emerson and Whitman.

Professor Wilson’s emphasis here is on Lincoln’s craftsmanship in his presidential writings. What can we learn from Wilson’s observations? I thought to myself facetiously as I read the book that to be a great writer, it helps not only to be a genius, but also to work hard at the craft. Lincoln “was not averse to the labor of writing,” Professor Wilson said to me. In the book, Professor Wilson observes Lincoln’s habit of “pre-writing,” of always making notes and writing out thoughts and arguments for later use. Together with “pre-writing” came constant revision (illustrated by photos of the manuscripts throughout the book). Then Lincoln would await the right occasion to make his point. With Hamlet, according to Professor Wilson, Lincoln held to the view that “the readiness is all.”

In our conversation Professor Wilson noted that Lincoln understood the importance of public opinion in a democracy. In the book he devotes an entire chapter to Lincoln’s view of public opinion. Lincoln’s writing was powerfully directed to molding public opinion, especially with respect to the propostion that all men are created equal. Professor Wilson believes that “Lincoln thought that the time he spent writing was the most important” of the time he spent in office. It’s one element of his presidency that marks it as distinctive. Professor Wilson concludes his prologue with the observation that “it is by now hard to imagine how we could engage the question of what that terrible war was about without Lincoln’s words.”

JOHN adds: Lincoln’s greatness of character and his familiarity to us, at least in caricature, make it easy to lose sight of the fact–in my opinion, anyway–that he was the most brilliant man to engage in public life in modern times.

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