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Book Review: 'Lincoln's Sword' by Douglas L. Wilson

Updated on June 25, 2013

Abraham Lincoln is considered one of the greatest presidents in American history for a number of reasons. He is remembered as the man who freed the slaves, who guided the Union through its fratricidal Civil War, who was martyred for saving America from itself. Less frequently is he remembered specifically as one of the most prolific and talented political writers ever to set foot in the White House. In his book Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, Douglas L. Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, explores this often neglected aspect of the sixteenth president. Wilson covers Lincoln’s writings from his farewell speech to the people of Springfield, Illinois, through the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, to his Second Inaugural, given just over a month before his assassination.

Lincoln was a thoughtful, deliberate writer, and Wilson pays particular attention to his tendency to experiment with multiple versions of his speeches before delivering them, tracking the changes in his thoughts and understanding by examining the revisions in his drafts. The book is also structured so that the reader gains a perspective on the evolution not only of Lincoln’s individual speeches, but of his abilities and confidence as a political writer as well. Wilson leads the way from Lincoln’s submission to almost all of William Seward’s heavy revisions to his First Inaugural to the “noble ending” of his Second Inaugural, demonstrating how far the president had come during his time in office. “No two papers are in stronger contrast—than his first and his last Inaugural addresses,” Frederick Douglass said, emphasizing the way Wilson structures Lincoln’s journey throughout the book.

Wilson devotes chapters to Lincoln’s Springfield farewell address, his First Inaugural, his 1861 Message to Congress, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and his Second Inaugural. To understand Abraham Lincoln, Wilson explains, it is important to read and understand these writings, because the core of Lincoln’s talent was his ability to shape the attitude of the public and achieve success for his policies through the power of his words. For nearly every major event, and several minor ones, that took place during Lincoln’s presidency, historians have something that Lincoln wrote about it.

Perhaps more interesting than Wilson’s explanation of the role Lincoln’s words played in public policy, however, is his insight into the role writing played in Lincoln’s personal life. For Lincoln, writing was a way of expressing himself and working out difficulties. It was second nature for him, his instinctive way of responding to the world. The sheer volume of written material that Lincoln produced during his time as president, from public speeches and open letters to notes of encouragement for his generals, is overwhelming. Writing as an indispensible part of Lincoln’s presidency.

'Lincoln's Sword' received the Lincoln Prize for the finest scholarly work on Abraham Lincoln in 2007.
'Lincoln's Sword' received the Lincoln Prize for the finest scholarly work on Abraham Lincoln in 2007. | Source

While Lincoln’s Sword is not the first book to focus on Lincoln’s relationship to the written word, it is particularly noteworthy for its approachability. Unlike many analytical history books, Lincoln’s Sword is reader-friendly and easily accessible to those without a history degree. Wilson’s prose remains engaging and easy to follow without being simplistic or juvenile. Despite its close attention to and analysis of Lincoln’s word choice and the variations between drafts of his speeches—sometimes to the point of contrasting the differences as small as the omission or change of a single word—Lincoln’s Sword is seldom monotonous or oppressive. Wilson’s passion for language and for Lincoln is obvious throughout the book, and it lends his prose a sense of enthusiasm that holds the reader’s interest even as Wilson dissects two nearly identical drafts of the Gettysburg Address.

Wilson does tend toward overanalysis at times, but his diligence and acute attention to detail is not unwarranted. Lincoln’s son, Robert, once observed of his father’s writing habits, “He was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid.” Lincoln’s process was laborious and purposeful; anything less in the study of that process would not befit the subject. Accordingly, Wilson cannot help but repeat himself somewhat as he explores Lincoln’s thoughtfulness and how his constant revisions reflect his changing understanding of the type of response the situation required, but Wilson does a good job of preventing this process from becoming tedious, instead using it only to enhance the reader’s understanding of Lincoln’s literary prowess.

No, the true shortcoming in this book is Wilson’s obvious admiration of Lincoln’s talents and the text’s bias in favor of the president. While not sycophantic to the point of distraction, Wilson praises Lincoln at every opportunity; he praises his superior sense of timing, his humbleness for accepting Seward’s revisions to his First Inaugural, and his inimitable skill in rewriting those revisions to improve the speech even further. But though it may be unnecessary, none of this praise is unwarranted. Lincoln did everything Wilson says he did, and his impressive talents deserve to be acknowledged. Wilson may be overenthusiastic in doing so, but this doesn’t make his points any less valid, or Lincoln’s accomplishments any less impressive.

Ultimately, Lincoln’s Sword is a strong effort, an insightful look into the head of one of America’s most revered presidents by means of the most insightful record he left behind: his own painstakingly crafted written words. Wilson’s analysis of Abraham Lincoln through the meaning of his words reveals the true power and importance of language, as well as a side of Lincoln that is infrequently so deeply and laboriously explored.


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