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© Abraham Lincoln Online
Author InterviewDouglas L. Wilson, author
Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words
November 2006; 352 pages, hardcover
In early 2006 we stopped by Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, to visit with Douglas L. Wilson. He's the author of Lincoln Before Washington and Honor's Voice, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center with Rod Davis, and a retired English professor. At our request he spoke about his latest book, Lincoln's Sword, which focuses on the president's remarkable writing skills. The book won the Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College in 2007. Sit back and enjoy the informal presentation which follows.
What struck me so forcefully was how much draft material there was in Lincoln's hand, and how much it had to tell us about Lincoln as a writer, being vivid evidence of how he composed. When I think back on it, I realize that my first interest in Abraham Lincoln, after all, was as a writer, an American writer, because my interests as a scholar center around American literature. Someone whose first interest was political history would probably tend to see Lincoln's drafts in a different way, as evidence, say, of his political views in the process of formation. But given my orientation, I was immediately taken by what his manuscripts showed about him as a literary craftsman.
Wilson: Lincoln's Sword came out of the project the Lincoln Studies Center did for the Library of Congress. Soon after we started the Center, they approached us and said they were putting up images of their Lincoln Papers on the Library of Congress website, along with their other important presidential collections. What they wanted were annotated transcriptions for the most important half of their collection. We didn't think we could do it because we had our own projects already laid out. But they were very persistent, so eventually we agreed to their suggestion that we put together an editorial staff and supervise the work. In fact, my partner, Rod Davis and I decided to transcribe and annotate the Lincoln autograph material ourselves.
I wasn't surprised about it, because I had a strong sense of him as a writer, but it seemed to me that his autograph manuscripts graphically show that he was someone who constantly revised what he had written, always seeing something he has written as less than adequate, always looking for a way in which it could be improved, not only as ideas but as expression. It seemed to me that just at a glance, just looking at his composition drafts, you can see evidence of his superiority as a writer, the way he revises himself, the way he changes things.
Lincoln Revised Many Presidential PapersLincoln's manuscripts are a visual way to see the writer at work. You can understand things better when you see the originals. For example, Lincoln told Francis Carpenter a story about amending his draft of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If you look at the manuscript, you see that there's a lot more to the story that either Lincoln didn't tell Carpenter or Carpenter didn't remember or didn't get into his account. It's very revealing to compare Carpenter's story with the manuscript. They help each other. Together they tell a bigger story than you could get from either source, and this is the kind of thing I wanted to bring out in my book.
So I started out with that basic perspective, and like all projects, it evolved as it went along. At the simplest level, you can start with the file copies of letters. What he did was a process that his son Robert describes: he sits down and very deliberately writes a letter; making changes and revisions as he goes. Then after he's satisfied with it, he copies out a fair copy. He sends the fair copy to the recipient, and puts the composition copy in his files. There are a lot of those composition drafts in the Lincoln Papers, and they help you see what he's reaching for, what he starts out with and what he moves toward, so you get a better sense of the direction of his thought. But you also see that he is deeply concerned with how that idea or thought gets expressed. That is, in a sense, the essence of what attracted me to the manuscripts.
I was very interested in the major speeches for which we have more than one draft. I knew I wanted to do something with them. For example, the Message to Congress on July 4, 1861. For this very important address, in which Lincoln undertakes to define the issues, to say at the outset what the Civil War was to be about, you can follow the process when you go from draft to draft. If you only read the finished product you can, perhaps, get some insight into the process by analyzing the argument or from other anecdotal evidence. But having so many manuscript drafts for the July 4 message, one can literally watch him building that speech.
An example of what the perspective I adopted calls attention to is the way Lincoln very deliberately and with great calculation writes all the eloquence and rhetoric out of the Emancipation Proclamation. It became clear to me that this was an exercise in writing in which you don't want to have any ornamentation, you don't want to have any flourish. I thought for a man like Lincoln who had a gift for eloquence and for turning a phrase, and for catching your attention verbally, this is an interesting case to study because he makes up his mind early on that it's got to be written the other way.
This leads to interesting developments. Someone like Salmon Chase, for example, just doesn't understand such an approach. When he saw what Lincoln had in mind, he went so far as to draft his own version of the Emancipation Proclamation, which makes a very instructive comparison to Lincoln's. In talking about the South, Chase uses words like "bloodshed" and "criminal madness" in the very first sentence. It was a model of the kind of emotional language Lincoln was trying to avoid, but at the same time it is very useful in illustrating Lincoln's determination to write it in a different way. He finally allowed Chase one sentence right at the end. Chase's sentence invoked "the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God," but Lincoln made sure it also mentioned "military necessity."
Lincoln Wrote Powerful Public LettersAnother thing that attracted my attention was the way Lincoln got into the business of writing public letters, something that no president had ever done. In the summer of 1862 things were really very, very bad for the Union cause. Even his friends were saying, "We're not doing anything. We're just getting beat, and taking it on the chin." He wanted to announce that he was going to issue a proclamation of emancipation, but his cabinet persuaded him that at such a time it would appear an act of desperation. So he was looking for some way to answer his many critics.
In August, he wrote out a brief defense of his views and read it to a friend, asking "What would you think if I published something like this?" While they were pondering the propriety of such a thing, Horace Greeley published a prominent editorial, which was long, noisy, impolite, accusatory. And Lincoln has this wonderful, quiet, firm, "I would save the Union" letter already written, so he just publishes it in a Washington newspaper as a response to Greeley. In spite of being criticized for being unprecedented, it had a good effect. Lincoln thereby discovered that he had a way to reach the public directly. He knew he needed to shape and prepare public opinion before he could do more about emancipation, and the Greeley letter went a long way towards doing just that.
That's the first letter, and in the pivotal year 1863, there are three more important public letters: the Erastus Corning letter, the letter to Ohio Democratic State Convention (Matthew Birchard) and the James Conkling letter. It turns out that, like the Greeley letter, the Corning letter was what I call "pre-writing," that is written from notes he had already made as ideas occurred to him and put away in a drawer in his desk. When he got the petition sent by Corning, he decided that this was the right occasion for defending his policies involving the curtailment of civil liberties, which he was able to do quite readily with the material he had stored away in the drawer.
Lincoln Composed in FragmentsWilliam Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, tells us that Lincoln habitually worked this way, making notes on scraps of paper and carrying them around in his hat. When he got ready to write the House Divided speech, for example, Herndon says he simply laid out all those pieces of paper on his desk and numbered them and then he wrote out the speech.
Another example of the same technique is the Hodges letter, which is dated April 1864. Lincoln had appointed Joseph Barrett, who wrote a campaign biography for him, to a job in the Patent Office, and called for him whenever he needed someone to run a political errands. Barrett, in his book on Lincoln's presidency, says he got a note from Lincoln to come see him, and when he walked into Lincoln's office there were little scraps of paper all over his desk. He was in the final stages of composing what became the famous letter to Albert G. Hodges.
That's the way he worked. The first of the three 1863 public letters, the Corning letter, was a huge success. They printed up and distributed tens of thousands of these things. David Donald estimates that several million people read the Corning letter. Lincoln realized that such letters could be useful in various ways, for some of the people who wrote him to say that not only do the Democrats need to hear this, but the Republicans need to hear it, too, because they're upset with the idea that the president may be violating their civil liberties, even if he's their president. So the effect of Lincoln's letter in quieting those fears was quite important.
In the Conkling letter, where he aggressively defends the use of black troops, I found evidence that he had that written most of it ahead of time. So writing, responding to criticism and explaining the government's actions, seems to have been considered by Lincoln the one of the most important thing he could do. This is clearly what he thought in June of 1861. The country was coming apart at the seams, and he told to his secretaries to admit no visitors but cabinet members. He wanted to concentrate on his Message to Congress. Putting his ideas in writing was a high priority for him, and as time went by, I think it became even more so. He came to see his writing as a way of achieving presidential ends that he couldn't do in any other way.
Lincoln's Contemporaries Overlooked his TalentMost of the book is about Lincoln's presidential writings, although I do have a chapter on his background as a writer. One of the stories I follow turns on the circumstance of Lincoln's writing being a hidden asset. When he came to the presidency, the public had a very strong impression of Lincoln as a rube, a guy who told jokes all the time, who had no education, but who got ahead as a Western politician because he was a good stump speaker. The idea that he was an accomplished writer didn't fit, so it didn't come through -- even to people who should have known better.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, was always talking about the need for a new American way of writing because America fostered a new experience, different from the European experience. Therefore, Emerson argued, American writing should be different; it should be original, spontaneous, it should come out of our own distinctively American experience. That Lincoln was actually such a writer doesn't seem to have dawned on Emerson until after he was assassinated. You can tell from Emerson's journal entries and what he says in his letters about Lincoln that he approves of Lincoln and thinks he's a good man, that he's getting the job done, if very slowly. But his reaction to the Greeley letter is that he didn't think it was dignified to respond to Greeley.
Here's this incredible letter to Greeley: it's not only beautifully written, but it's powerful in its effect. But all Emerson can see is that it's beneath Lincoln's presidential dignity. So I'm interested in that story -- the American intelligentsia having a hard time seeing Lincoln as a good writer. But finally, at the end, they get it. It comes slowly, and some get it sooner than others.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was one who got it. She says, "People are always saying, why does he insist on writing his own messages? He's got perfectly capable people who could do this for him, and do it better than he could." She recognized that Lincoln's qualities as a writer had greater appeal with the public than conventional presidential writing could have had. This points to another aspect of Lincoln's greatness. He didn't do the conventional thing, even when pressured to do so; he followed his own lights. When it came to writing, he just knew that he could do it better than anybody else.
Lincoln's Death Awakened AppreciationSince Lincoln's words are more familiar to Americans than almost anyone else's, it's hard to understand that there was a time when he wasn't thought of as a good writer. I think that's an interesting part of his story, because recognition as a writer came about the same time as the recognition that he was a great man. He was definitely not a national hero the day before he was shot. He was a very controversial politician, even with his own party, and when he got shot, suddenly his critics were silenced or converted, and suddenly people had to admit that he said and written some remarkable things.
Senator Charles Sumner, who was in some ways friendly to him but in other ways very antagonistic, said, "Well, he made some speeches that nobody else could have made and he stood up for human rights, and the Declaration, so, fame takes him by the hand." This was a lot for a man like Sumner to say, because he was opposed to Lincoln in so many ways. After Lincoln died he went the whole hog about the Gettysburg Address. Sumner, who's probably the best-read person who ever sat in the Congress, an incredibly learned man, says that in all of literature and in all languages, the Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech that was ever written.
Lincoln Sought a Live AudienceLincoln was an aural thinker, more than a visual thinker. He was aware of that and told people that. What I think is interesting is that he always wanted somebody to listen while he read his final drafts aloud. No matter what the document, he said he needed a real listener present. It wasn't the same as reading it aloud to himself. In all the examples of Lincoln reading something he has written, the work is usually finished, but this is his way of making sure. He reads it to a real listener.
If you or I wanted a committee to endorse something, we would distribute copies for everybody to read before the meeting, and then we would talk about it. Lincoln could have done that, but he rarely did. Instead, he would say to his Cabinet, "Now I want to read you this." And he'd read it. It was important for him to hear it as he presented it. There were often occasions when he would say to his Cabinet, "I'm not asking for your criticism, I've already made up my mind, but I want you to hear this." Part of what I think that we haven't fully understood before is that he was saying, at least in part, I have to read it to you in order to communicate.
The Leonard Swett example is almost unbelievable. Swett told this story to all of his friends. Lincoln sent a telegram to Swett in Illinois and said, "I need to see you." Swett, who was used to doing errands for Lincoln, and understood that he was a person Lincoln could trust, packed his bags and went to Washington.
Lincoln asked Swett to listen as he read from letters and position papers and then laid out, in his own words, various arguments both for and against issuing a policy of emancipation. Swett was an old friend and close confidant, and he was surely expecting Lincoln to say, "Now, what do you think?" But he didn't. Instead, when he finished he said, "Tell all the folks 'hello' when you get back to Bloomington, and I really thank you for coming." He asked Swett to come to Washington simply to listen.
This and many of circumstances lead one to conclude that Lincoln really did have to hear these things and he needed to say them aloud and he needed a live audience. That's the way he worked. That's why he's always reading his drafts to somebody, and if he can't find anybody else, he reads it to a clerk in his office.
Lincoln's Thinking Anchored His WritingThe most important thing Herndon has to say about Lincoln -- and he's fascinated by it and says a lot about it -- is about Lincoln's quality of mind, that he's a very deep thinker, very reflective, very persistent and thorough. Lincoln's friends were sometimes surprised to find that he had already anticipated their intellectual efforts and had probed deeper than they had. Orville Browning told John Nicolay that he had told Lincoln sometime in 1861 that if we didn't do the right thing about slavery, we couldn't expect the Almighty to be on our side. Lincoln replied, "Browning, what if the Almighty takes a different view of slavery than we do?" Browning says he realized right then that Lincoln had thought deeper about the issue than he had.
This is what Herndon was always saying: Lincoln liked to think -- that was his realm. He was a deep thinker and he was very hard to outdo in any area that he was interested in. He had already taken a subject farther. Something Lincoln tells Schuyler Colfax is, it seems to me, very indicative of his way of thinking. Lincoln said that in preparing a law case, he always started with the other side first. He wanted to understand the other side all the way to the bottom. When you think about it, that's a good way to proceed. One thing Herndon says is that Lincoln is "long-headed." Always thinking about the future. Always anticipating what would happen if you did this or that. That fits his writing. He's a pre-writer; he writes in anticipation.
Related LinksAbraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
Herndon's Lincoln - an Editor Interview
Original Manuscript - Letter to Charles Hodges (Library of Congress)
Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College
Related BooksWilson, Douglas L. and Davis, Rodney O., editors. Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Herndon, William H. and Weik, Jesse W.; edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis Herndon's Lincoln. University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Wilson, Douglas L. Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Wilson, Douglas L. Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
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