Lincoln’s Sword

By Karen S. Lynch (Crossroads ©2007)


  With a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging above the fireplace behind him, Douglas L. Wilson read from his most recent book, Lincoln’s Sword- The Presidency and the Power of Words. The former Knox College Professor discussed his book to a packed Alumni Room Friday night January 5 at Knox College’s Old Main. Wilson is the co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. This is the fourth book Wilson has written on Lincoln, “Because I’m a student of Literature, but it’s not the kind of book a student of Lincoln would write.”

   The latest book is becoming widely acclaimed with rave reviews in publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, “The book is a delight and a Wonder.” Richard Norton Smith, founding director, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum wrote, “It is Doug Wilson’s genius to reconstruct the man by deconstructing his words.”

  Wilson explained that Lincoln wanted to be a poet, but considered himself a failed poet, finding poetry too restrictive. “He could not express powerful emotions written within constraints of pentameter rhyme.” Wilson continued, “Lincoln wrote insensately all of his life, but he never considered himself a writer.” He clearly had literary aspirations, according to Wilson, who described Lincoln as “A man of letters.”

   Giving insight into the inner thoughts of Lincoln, found in the manuscripts the Library of Congress who asked for help in transcription, Wilson said, “Lincoln was a secretive man… not given to private revelations or self-disclosure.” In describing the reading habits of Lincoln, Wilson stated, “He devoured books. Lincoln especially loved Shakespeare, the Bible, and Burns. He knew the Bible by heart.”

  In facing Lincoln’s critics Wilson explained, “His pen became his sword.” Lincoln used his writings to defend against his critics by writing powerful letters and speeches from bits and pieces of papers and notes he often kept in his hat. U.S. Senate candidate Lincoln wrote his “House Divided” speech, given before the Republican State Convention at the Springfield, Illinois statehouse on June 16, 1858. Wilson shared the story behind the “House Divided” speech. “Lincoln dumped the notes from his hat, arranged then on the table, numbered them and then proceeded to write his speech.” Lincoln wanted to shock the people with his now famous speech, according to Wilson. Going against his critics, Lincoln refused to strike the words “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

   According to Wilson, Lincoln was both a re-writer and a pre-writer, who often revised several times what he had written, after delivering a speech to submit to Congress to be published with the revisions. “He’s a pre-writer in anticipation of an occasion, looking for a place to make a statement.” Lincoln preferred to read his speeches aloud, according to Wilson. “He has to hear it and have a live audience.”

   Lincoln had many critics, even in his own Republican Party for appointing Democrats as Generals. The use of black soldiers was also highly criticized, but strongly defended by Lincoln who was a strong abolitionist. He brought together a divided nation after the carnage of the Civil War by following his own convictions, ignoring his critics. From Wilson’s book jacket: “Lincoln’s Sword tells the story of how Lincoln developed his writing skills, how they served him for a time as a hidden presidential asset, how it gradually became clear that he possessed a formidable literary talent, and it reveals how writing came to play an increasingly important role in his presidency.”