A year or so ago I picked Shelby Foote's fourteen volume history of the Civil War. The American Civil War is chock full of fascinating characters and great stories, and Foote is a brilliant writer. His prose sings, even better than Bruce Catton's, which is high praise indeed. It isn't the best book on the origins of the war, Catton's The Coming Fury and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom are better, but in putting flesh and blood on the men and women who lived that war no one did more.
I'm only just starting the fifth volume, which begins with the Battle of Fredericksburg, but Foote's undying love and respect for Abraham Lincoln shines through like a bright light. At the end of volume four, he devotes a chapter to Abraham Lincoln as a writer. Foote argues that Lincoln was not only a great President, a man of amazing capacity at a critical time in History. Lincoln reached out to everyone, and he talked to people when walking the streets. Whenever a man like Horace Greeley would excoriate one of his policies Lincoln lamented, and wondered why Greeley wouldn't come and talk to him first. He talked to everyone else, and one of the reasons he held the Union together in this most difficult war was his ability to reach out to those who dissented against him.
Foote pointed out something, that the only time people couldn't get in to meet Lincoln was when he was writing. And he was more, a thinker. To those of us who struggle with the printed word it becomes clear that the process of writing is also the process of organizing the mind. A lot of ideas sound good when rolling around in your brain. They have no defects, no logical weakness. But when you go to put them down on paper everything changes. Somehow you have to organize these ideas and present them in logical chains. The things you didn't think through so well appear. The direction you chose to begin with sometimes leads you over a cliff. Sometimes you end up restarting and going in a different direction entirely.
One of the biggest examples of this came during the Lee v. Weisman decision. In the case the local school board had made a habit of inviting local clergy to offer opening prayers before various school events, which was challenged as violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The principal provided clergy with a pamphlet suggesting how the talk should go. Justice Anthony Kennedy sat down to write the majority opinion, which would have upheld the schools right to continue the prayers. Most Americans see such things as innocent acts, and normal for people who still ask the Blessing before every meal. But as he wrote things like the pamphlet began to bother the Justice. He saw that principal was in fact guiding and suggesting the content of the prayers, and because these were public events were just that they implied endorsement of a certain set of religious beliefs. In the process of writing them Kennedy thought his beliefs through and reversed himself.
Lincoln was such a thinker. His 1858 Senatorial debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas were illuminating and represent the complete opposition of political debates today. Today candidates strive to offend no one while generating sound bytes. They want to look good on T.V. But in 1858 Kansas was bleeding and Douglas had been part of the compromise that created popular sovereignty, where each state would choose for itself to whether it would be Slave or Free. Douglas wasn't particularly pro-slavery. He was pro-union, and saw the compromise as necessary to maintain a bitterly divided land. Douglas defended his choices vigorously, and in defending himself was compelled to recognize the fundamental issue of slavery, that it denied the humanity of an entire race of human beings. The debates were political, but fought by brilliant men who expressed themselves clearly and well, it was a debate of ideas and educational to its listeners.
Back then men didn't see their candidates on TV. Debates were too distant for most to attend in a day when the Foot Mk. 1 was primary transportation. Speeches were posted and people read them. Today we elect men we'd like hang with, and suffer from our choices. Back then we sought great and articulate men, men who proved through their words their ability to think and to lead. Lincoln was the man who said "A house divided against itself cannot stand. "
But the best proof of all resides in his Gettysburg Address, fought after the great victory that ended the Confederacy's last major offensive, and the turning point in the east that led to the final defeat of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Gettysburg was a savage battle, as was typical in the war: Battle of Shiloh, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Antietam, the war was fought in a day when the musket was giving way to the rifle and the machine gun and breech-loading cannon beginning to appear on a battlefield filled with men.
Consider these words, simple, humble but clean and pure, striking right to the heart of person. Not a word wasted, not a comma out of place. Lincoln wrote and thought words that reflected and shaped his times.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It may be that America has produced better wordsmiths than Abraham Lincoln. But whenever he had to he produced the right words, the exact words to express the feelings of bleeding and battered land. No one who has ever lifted a pen has done more.