Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency And The Power Of Words by Douglas L. Wilson

An absolutely fascinating analysis of Abraham Lincoln as a writer, which was undoubtedly his greatest strength. Thusly the title recalls the epic phrase – “the pen is mightier than the sword”, which was coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 (thanks Wikipedia!). Some of my favorite quotes and ideas from the book follow – enjoy!

“‘He was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid. … I never saw him dictate to anyone, and it certainly was not his practice to do so. He seemed to think nothing of the labor of writing personally and was accustomed to make many scraps of notes and memoranda. In writing a careful letter, he first wrote it himself, then corrected it, and then rewrote the corrected version himself.’ … Even though a slow and ‘very deliberate’ writer, Lincoln was not in the least put off by what most people consider the onerous labor of writing. … While never well organized or systematic, he was in fact an energetic, hands-on, detail-oriented administrator” (pp 5).

“Lincoln explained to a long-suffering [William] Herndon that it enabled him to ‘catch the idea by 2 sense,’ by hearing and sight. It also served to give him a feel for the sounds and combinations of sounds that tend to gratify listeners and favorably dispose them toward the author’s or speaker’s ideas. This kind of aural awareness helps to explain how Lincoln was able eventually to become a master of language and to excel at what Robert V. Bruce has called ‘the shaping of words to ideas, of sounds to sense'” (pp 30).

“‘Is it true, then, that any right, plainly written in the Constitution, has been denied? … Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. A constitutional majority is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism is all that is left'” (pp 49).

“His editor operated on the principle that where commas were concerned, less is more; Lincoln treated commas as a means of regulating pauses and phrasing, and thus considered that more is more” (pp 90).

“One of [Lincoln’s] law clerks from the 1840s later claimed that Lincoln told him, ‘I write by ear. When I have got my thoughts on paper, I read it aloud, and if it sounds all right I just let it pass'” (pp 90, 180-181).

“…the abolitionist approach to the problem of slavery was like that of the ‘old reformers,’ calculated to turn slave owners adrift and damn them without remedy. For Lincoln, such a self-righteous and uncharitable approach not only was inhumane, but it had, for a politician in a democratic society, a fatal flaw: it could never earn widespread popular support. This last point says much, for enlisting popular support for a cause was the guiding star of Lincoln’s political philosophy” (pp 109).

“But in proclaiming emancipation as a military necessity, he greatly feared that he was granting freedom that might not be permanent. His position from the beginning of the conflict had been that all the government required was that the rebellious states cease their resistance to the national authority and resume their ‘constitutional relation’ to the United States. Surely it was all too clear that if or when this came about, the first thing the former rebels would do would be to seek to reclaim property seized under a ‘military necessity’ that no longer existed” (pp 131).

“‘No one had greater responsibility for defining and directing democracy than the president,’ writes a leading historian of Lincoln’s presidency, Phillip S. Paludan, ‘ and Abraham Lincoln may have been the most qualified man int he nation for the job. For over a quarter century, as both lawyer and politician, Lincoln had been in the persuading business in the most democratic society in the world.’ … Aristotle’s precept – ‘our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.’ … ‘Persuasion,’ writes Aristotle, ‘is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others; this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.’ … [Lincoln] understood that he would be better served by simply giving [strangers] reason to believe that, whatever his faults, he was essentially honest and trustworthy” (pp 147-148).

“As president, he had, it seemed, almost a phobia about speaking without a prepared text. … This is the mark of a man who had a profound appreciation for the power of words, and who would rather pass up an opportunity to gratify his public than to express himself with less than precision. In this connection, Richard J. Carwardine makes an especially telling point: ‘His enforced near-silence made him all the more attentive to the quality of his prose, which he sought to imbue with color, life and energy'” (pp 166-167).

“‘All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers or re-appearing tyranny and oppression'” (pp 204).

“‘And I see in a succession of battles in Pennsylvania, which continued three days, so rapidly following each other as to be justly called one great battle, fought on the first, second, and third of July, and on the fourth the enemies of the declaration that all men are created equal had to turn tail and run'” (pp 207).

“Pascal – ‘I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.’ Henry David Thoreau – ‘Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.’ Woodrow Wilson – ‘If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.'” (pp 228-229).

“‘Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb'” (pp 247).

“…he was a good listener; he had a way of making his visitors feel important, that he valued their opinions, and that his response was candid and sincere” (pp 248).

“‘…each party claims to act in accordence with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. in the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose'” (pp 254).

“‘…since the will of God necessarily prevails, it must follow that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet_'”(pp 256).

“while Lincoln believed he was not the captain of the ship that ‘carried him on life’s rough waters,’ neither did he regard himself as an ‘idle passenger but a sailor on deck with a job to do'” (pp 261).

“Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of ware may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'” (pp 273). Slavery -> Civil War, Civil Rights injustice -> Vietnam War, other rights injustice -> Gulf War? I’m just wondering.

“…one of the things Lincoln strove for in his writing, especially on great occasions, was to emulate his idol [, Henry Clay,] and attempt to touch the chords of human sympathy by the same means, through the tone or manner of expression. This meant using language that, in its rhythms as well as its connotations, carried conviction. What is interesting is that Henry Clay, who was enormously successful as a speaker addressing the issues of his day, ceased to read when those issues receded, whereas Lincoln’s writings live on” (pp 280).

“‘the President wrote the Message on stiff sheets of a sort of cardboard, which he could lay upon his knee and write upon as he sat with his feet on the table and his chair tilted back in the ‘American attitude”” (pp 282).

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