Q: There have been countless volumes written about Abraham Lincoln. What is different about the approach you have taken in Lincoln’s Sword? What new insights into Lincoln’s life does the book present?
A: There is no other book that I am aware of that sees Lincoln coming to the presidency as a life-long writer, a man who was in the habit of responding to both public and personal issues by writing. With that as its starting point, Lincoln’s Sword explores the circumstances in which his most consequential presidential writings were produced and the role that writing eventually came to play in his presidency. Seeing Lincoln in this perspective—as a experienced writer in the presidential chair—offers a window on his presidency, as well as a key to his accomplishments. This perspective is all the more interesting in that Lincoln’s felicitous way with words, which we take for granted, was an almost entirely hidden asset, the last thing the public expected from him. Lincoln’s rise in the public’s estimation from unpromising prairie politician to great national hero is a well-known chapter in American history. Lincoln’s Sword tries to show how his unrecognized talent for writing contributed to this celebrated transformation.
Q: As a professor of American Literature, how did you first become interested in the study of Abraham Lincoln?
A: I think I always thought of Lincoln as one of our greatest American writers. He doesn’t seem, at first, to qualify, because he wrote in such unpromising formats—messages to Congress, proclamations, public letters, ceremonial speeches. But if we judge the importance of a writer by the familiarity of his words and the depth of meaning and feeling they evoke, few if any American writers would compare with him.
Q: The concept of Lincoln as a writer is particularly fascinating considering his primarily self-taught education. Was it a struggle for his writing to be accepted by his more educated peers?
A: It was. The American intelligentsia pre-judged him in this respect, precisely because of his lack of education. One newspaper editor asked “Who will write this ignorant man’s state papers?” Even those who were sympathetic grumbled because he insisted on writing his own messages to Congress, instead of delegating such tasks to more able and experienced hands. They complained when he broke precedent and responded to the criticisms of Horace Greeley in a public letter, even though it was grudgingly admitted to be a highly effective one. His secretary, John G. Nicolay, said that, long after Lincoln’s death, he frequently encountered learned men who still could not understand how a person without formal education could have written the remarkable things Lincoln did.
Q: In your book Honor’s Voice, which was awarded the Lincoln Prize for 1999, you focused primarily on Lincoln as a young man and his emergence into the public realm. Were there experiences from Lincoln’s younger years that were instrumental to his development as a writer?
A: One of the unfamiliar facts about Lincoln is that he was a writer from childhood. The son of parents who were painfully sub-literate, he took to writing at a very young age, and by the time he was a teenager, he had caught the attention of his neighbors with his poems and essays. He wrote incessantly for the newspapers from an early age, and at the time he was elected to Congress at the age of 37, he was still making serious attempts to write poetry. Though it has had very little attention from his biographers, Lincoln’s career as a wordsmith actually had what Emerson would have called a “long foreground.”
Q: In Lincoln’s Sword you demonstrate the great care and attention with which Lincoln revised each of his speeches through your analysis of various drafts. What do these drafts indicate about Lincoln’s writing method?
A: The care and attention that Lincoln gave to his writings dramatize, as perhaps nothing else could, the importance that revision played in his writing. We tend to think of him as spontaneous, direct, candid. The most persistent myth about him as a writer is that he scribbled the Gettysburg Address hurriedly on an envelope en route to the ceremony. The truth about his writing is rather the opposite of this—that he labored long and hard over his important documents, revising them with care. Most presidents, as well as most laymen, consider that laboring by the hour at the writing desk, especially in the midst of a grave national crisis, is not a productive use of presidential time. Lincoln evidently thought this was one of the best uses he could make of it.
Q: Nowadays, most politicians employ a fleet of speech writers. Did Lincoln write all of his speeches himself, and if so, do you feel that it gave him more control or influence over the policies he implemented?
A: With respect to his presidential writing, Lincoln delegated almost nothing. He composed all his important papers and speeches himself. His way of expressing himself was distinctive and did not conform to time-honored conventions, and for this reason he was urged by his advisors (who harbored other doubts about his abilities) to delegate his official writing to more experienced hands. There is little question that composing his own state papers helped him to maintain control, not only of his official policies, but of the way they were presented and justified. He understood that nobody could do it better, so he did it himself.
Q: If Lincoln had not been president during such a tumultuous time as the Civil War, do you think that his approach to governing or to writing would have been different?
A: I agree with Garry Wills that the pressure of being president in such a demanding time had the effect of making Lincoln perform at higher and higher levels. The First Inaugural is a very fine speech, with a truly memorable conclusion, but most critics would agree that the Second Inaugural four years later is one of the greatest pieces ever written by an American. And it is only seven hundred words long. Without the pressures of the Civil War, where, as Lincoln believed, the success of the American experiment in self-government was hanging in the balance, Lincoln’s presidency and his writing would have been very different.
Q: What other American Presidents, if any, would you place in the category of “writers”? In your opinion, has any president since Lincoln carried on his tradition of commanding political power through his use of words?
A: Without claiming to be a full-bore presidential historian, I would suggest that the only president in the same class as a writer with Lincoln was Thomas Jefferson. But his presidency did not draw forth any works to compare with Lincoln’s best and was not noticeably affected by his ability as a writer. The only really talented presidential writer since Lincoln was Woodrow Wilson, and while he was able to shape public opinion with his speeches, his major efforts were unavailing, and his speeches thus forgotten.
Q: How do you feel that Lincoln’s works fit into the greater cannon of American Literature?
A: I think Lincoln, like his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, was effectively helping to forge an authentic American literature. As Ralph Waldo Emerson often complained at the time, American writing had been too imitative of European, especially British, models. This was why American writing did not measure up. What was needed, Emerson argued, was a more original literary response to American experience. This is what Lincoln’s presidential writing essentially is. In abandoning the conventions and precedents that governed official writing and producing the wholly original works that he thought the situation called for, such as the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln produced writing whose authenticity excellence were inescapably American.
Q: You are now co-director, with Rodney O. Davis, of The Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. How did the founding of this center come about, and what projects are you working on?
A: Rodney Davis and I were teaching partners in American Studies courses at Knox College for 25 years. When we retired, we continued to collaborate on Lincoln research projects under the auspices of the Lincoln Studies Center. One of the first tasks we undertook was for the Library of Congress, which retained us to provide annotated transcriptions for the Abraham Lincoln Papers on their website. Thus far our published collaborations include Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (1998) and a new edition of William H. Herndon’s biography of his law partner, Herndon’s Lincoln (2006), the first volume in our new publication series published by the University of Illinois Press. We are currently completing a new edition of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, due out in 2008, and also working on a collection of Herndon’s letters, interviews, and lectures about Lincoln.
Q: Do you know what your next book will be?
A: I don’t. As I’ve indicated above, Rodney Davis and I are already committed to a substantial amount of editorial work. There are still lots of things I would like to write about, mostly in connection with Lincoln. Since I tend to write as a way of going more deeply into things that interest me, I find myself attracted to such figures as Emerson, Frederick Douglas, and, perhaps more surprisingly, Emily Dickinson, in their relation to Lincoln.