By Jim Dueholm
Thursday, February 3, 2022
I have long been entranced by Abraham Lincoln, a lanky, awkward, homely man of humble beginnings and modest lineage who became our greatest president, a man of world renown, a man for the ages.
He waged and won a great civil war, saved the Union and freed the slaves. To steal a phrase Lincoln used, those acts alone would enshrine his name for time and eternity, but he was a man of memorable words as well as monumental actions, our only truly literary president.
His masterpieces are the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, gems that explore the causes and need for the Civil War with a brevity that enables each address to be inscribed in full on a single wall of the Lincoln Memorial. (By comparison, the Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King memorials just quote snippets of addresses.) The photo shown above is of a portion of the inscription of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address at the Lincoln Memorial.
Lincoln crafted his two masterpieces for literary effect, but he also embedded striking passages in otherwise pedestrian works. In an 1854 speech in Peoria, Illinois, detailing how slavery had degraded Jefferson’s declaration of equality, he said “our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.” In a February 1861 address to the New Jersey legislature he called Americans God’s “almost chosen people.” In his First Inaugural Address he appealed to “mystic chords of memory” that would be “touched by the better angels of our nature.” Near the end of a long, dull message to Congress in December 1862 he strung the literary pearls “we cannot escape history,” “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” “the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation,” and “we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” After General U.S. Grant’s forces drove all Confederate forces from the banks of the Mississippi River, Lincoln exulted in an August 1863 letter to his friend James Conkling that “the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” stunning words and imagery that evoke the flow and surge of the Mighty Mississippi as it works its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lincoln was a man of letters in more ways than one. He often wrote and published letters to explain and justify his acts. In June 1863 letters to Erastus Corning and Matthew Birchard he explained and justified his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, an ancient judicial writ that allows a prisoner to contest his detention. In the Conkling letter he explained his decision to enlist black soldiers, which hadn’t been done before. In the Conkling letter, a September 1863 letter to Salmon Portland Chase, and a long April 1864 letter to Albert Hodges, Lincoln justified the Emancipation Proclamation, explained why he withheld it until the third year of the war, and identified the constitutional provisions and laws of war that gave him the power to free the slaves.
It’s estimated there are over 16,000 books about Lincoln, and still they come, in unending stream, beckoned by an army of Lincoln buffs .Lots of things draw people to Lincoln, including his background and upbringing, his life story, his times, his powerful analytical mind, his character, his political skills, his natural command of men and events, his epic deeds, and his stature as the indispensable man, the “one among forty millions,” in the words of Confederate General James Longstreet, the only one who could preserve the Union. A good chunk of that draw, though, is Lincoln’s unique, breathtaking way with words.
(Editor’s note: Jim Dueholm is a long time history and Lincoln buff. He was a history major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduated from Harvard Law School, and practiced law in Minnesota for 35 years. He has authored two articles on constitutional issues under Lincoln that have been published in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association: "Lincoln's Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus: An Historical and Constitutional Analysis," in Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer 2008), and "A Bill of Lading Delivers the Goods: The Constitutionality and Effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, " in Vol. 31, No. 1, (Winter 2010) He also wrote the article on secession which appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of the Lincolnian newsletter. He explored the issues in that article because, like the constitutionality of secession, these are legal issues that largely have been examined by historians, not lawyers. This article appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of the Lincolnian newsletter.)