Friday, February 13, 2009

A Lincoln Tribute

I’m a day late with it. As most of you know, yesterday was the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Former Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern has recently completed a biography of the man he says is our greatest President, a judgment many of us share.

Yesterday at Huffington Post McGovern paid tribute to Lincoln. Here’s part of what McGovern wrote. I think it will interest you and I pass it on as my way of paying tribute to President Abraham Lincoln.

. . . One could cite a number of reasons why Lincoln remains such a highly regarded president to all the generations since his assassination so many years ago.

Certainly one of those factors has been the inspired and masterful speeches that came from his heart, mind, and soul.

No other president possessed such compelling literary power and grace. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson would rate second and third among the presidents who crafted their own addresses.

I recall vividly during my years in the excellent public schools of Mitchell, South Dakota, being required to memorize and recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. That address stirred my respect for Lincoln then as it does today. It belongs with the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights among our greatest state papers.

Each of us might add others to that list. In my case I would add Lincoln's two inaugurals and the farewell addresses of two generals who served as president, George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.

Lincoln worked diligently on his speeches. He would begin by reading the better speeches of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and he would draw upon his knowledge of the Bible, Shakespeare, Aesop's Fables and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. He also kept at hand a file of his own previous speeches. He would then begin to write in longhand a draft of his speech, which he would further refine each time he read it.

This process of reading selected works, digesting the most stirring and eloquent passages of other speeches, and then laboriously writing his own thoughts and words could sometimes take weeks or even months.

When he finally had a draft that satisfied him he would call in a critic -- perhaps his secretary of state, William H. Seward -- and ask him to read the speech aloud in Lincoln's presence. Then the president would read it aloud to Seward and the two men would discuss where the draft might be improved.

It was through this give and take that Seward suggested a phrase for Lincoln's first inaugural address that in the final draft became the now immortal phrase "the better angels of our nature."


drew said...

John, I had never heard Sen. McGovern's comments about Honest Abe before your post, but McGovern's statements are high praise indeed. I would call to everyone's attention one of the better books that I have read about Pres. Lincoln and the times in which he served, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is an excellent book that is well-written, organized in a fashion that relates a great deal of facts and insights into an interesting narrative, and well worth the effort to read from cover to cover (including the footnotes and endnotes).

Although Ms. Goodwin's scholarly escutcheon has been smudged lately by the usual comments about writing style and process, I still find this book amazing. Mr. Lincoln was perhaps a man many decades before his time, and one can only wonder what our Republic might be like if another like he were to come along today.

Anonymous said...

When one thinks of Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address immediately comes to mind. Some thoughts - The Gettysgurg speech was at once the shortest and most famous oration in American history --- the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never again even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic - beauty, not sense. Think of the arguement in it. Put into the cold words of everyday, the doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self determination - that government of the people, by the people and for the people should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. Steve in New Mexico

Anonymous said...

Steve in New Mexico makes a valid point. Perhaps one of the things that obscures our understanding of the Confederacy is the persistent mischaracterization of the War Between the States as a civil war. A civil war is a war between two elements within a nation with the object of controlling that nation. Cromwell's troops fought a civil war in England and overthrew the monarchy for a time.
The Confederate States of America had no desire to conquer the Union States nor did they ever aim for control of the country. They did make an attempt to invade Washington DC, but it was only to force Lincoln to cease military operations within the Confederacy.
Many constitutional scholars argue convincingly that secession is a perfectly valid right of any state.
As for considering Lincoln a great president, I don't believe a man who unilaterally suspends habeas corpus and jails citizens for their opinions can ever be considered great.
Tarheel Hawkeye