Last week’s column contrasted President Lincoln’s eloquence with the thin gruel served up as political speech in these degenerate days. To paraphrase a German philosopher: “Nothing straight was ever made from the crooked timber of politics.” We must grant that his successes were not purely a product of eloquence; he knew how to play politics and played them well. Even so, there’s no denying that it was his eloquence that made his election possible.

There are three books on my Lincoln shelf devoted entirely to analyzing the man’s words and reading, guides to his thinking. He said about himself that he was not a quick study, but what he learned he retained as if etched on steel. Let’s hope no one is so unfair that they would deny Barack Obama full credit for being the only president in history who was fluent in Austrian, but his autobiographies offer very little substantive information about which of his many, many ideas are etched on steel. And all we’ve heard about Donald Trump’s intellectual evolution is the assertion that he spends up to seven hours a day watching TV. Since we read this in The New York Times, his dedicated and venomous enemy, skepticism is required. I believe he showed interviewers around his New York offices during the campaign and boasted of his collection of famous athlete foot odors trapped in his collection of their authentic shoes. No mention was made of books.

This does not serve as the last word on the Trump Tower Gargoyle’s intellectual equipment. His experience of business and life may tell us more, although those details remain sparse and disputed. What we know about the intellectual endowment of GHW and W Bush, the Clintons (W & H), and Obama relate to their Ivy League exposure. Future scholars may get around to examining something more than ghost-written campaign books to determine how their intellects took shape. After all, we now have a body of works devoted to studying the libraries left behind by Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. 

We have “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History” by John Patrick Diggins (400 pages), “The Reagan Diaries” (almost 700 pages), and “Reagan: A Life in Letters” (800) pages. Diggins, an intellectual historian by trade, argues that the man was influenced by Thomas Paine more than anyone else. All biographies acknowledge that books by Whittaker Chambers played large roles in the development of his beliefs.

I believe that the first thing we should know about our sixteenth president is that he fell in love with the English language. The King James version, Shakespeare’s plays, Robert Burns’s poetry and others have been identified as his teachers. Charles Farrar Browne of Waterford, Maine, also deserves mention. Writing as Artemus Ward, he was a leading humorous writer and lecturer of his day and became a model for Mark Twain. His genre, dialect humor, fell out of fashion seventy years ago and would probably offend sixteen canons of Political Correctness today, but the point here is that Lincoln loved English in all its forms, Daniel Webster at his peak and smutty jokes all alike.

The evidence indicates that Lincoln’s appreciation of the power of his native tongue to express ideas, allied with a steel-etched concentration, developed and disciplined his habits of analysis. We know from his law partner that his arguments in court always remain fixed on the essential points, while he readily conceded minor points to his adversaries. His first inaugural address concentrated on the obligations of his oath to uphold the Constitution. He implicitly acknowledged that the Republic’s founding document did not forbid slavery, while clearly implying an intention to limit its growth. In this he clearly separated the obligations of his oath from his conviction that slavery was wrong. 

Karl Marx, writing from London, dismissed the Emancipation Proclamation as a ponderous lawyer’s screed, lacking in grandeur. And he was not wrong. Lincoln was evoking presidential war powers vaguely implied by the Constitution, while leaving slavery in place within states already under union control. Abolitionists wanted him to evoke a moral law that forbade slavery across the board and forever, but his oath was to uphold the Constitution, not a higher moral law. The Thirteenth Amendment was needed to remove slavery constitutionally.

“With charity toward all and malice toward none” is the most famous line of his Second Inaugural. It was immediately adopted as a slogan and displayed on badges and banners. Much more than an effective slogan, however, this phrase points to Lincoln’s disciplined use of speech. It’s a nearly universal rule of war that leaders must inspire a bit of blood-lust in the population by demonizing the enemy. Lincoln aimed to restore the union. Demonization would undermine that goal.

John Frary of Farmington is a former candidate for U.S. Congress, a retired history professor, an Emeritus Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United, a Maine Citizen’s Coalition Board member, and publisher of FraryHomeCompanion.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.