Memorializing Lincoln

By Justin Ewers
Sunday, January 14, 2007

What makes a president great? Stephen Colbert, in his fake-news show, "The Colbert Report," enjoys poking fun at the question, teasing members of Congress who come on the program about how history will view the current chief executive. "George W. Bush," Colbert asks with a grin. "Great president? Or the greatest president?"

Politicians may have their own motives for keeping Bush out of the top spot, of course, but for historians, the reason is simple. In scholarly rankings of presidents going back 50 years, one man, more than any other, has been rated first again and again: Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, savior of the Union, winner of the Civil War. More than 140 years after his death, the most celebrated man ever to occupy the White House certainly doesn't want for adulatory biographies -- dozens have been published in the last five years alone -- but scholars still can't resist reexamining his legacy. Several books try to put Lincoln's leadership under new light, offering a variety of interpretations of what made Honest Abe so, well, great.

LINCOLN'S SWORD The Presidency and the Power of Words

By Douglas L. Wilson

Knopf, $26.95

The Lincoln of legend is usually depicted as the ultimate stump speaker, a mesmerizing teller of yarns. But in Lincoln's Sword, Douglas L. Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, argues that he was something else as well: one of the great presidential writers in history, rivaled only by Jefferson.

When Lincoln first took office, few would have agreed. Intellectuals smirked at the dirty-joke-telling frontiersman who had moved into the White House. "Who will write this ignorant man's state papers?" one newspaper editor mused. But that sentiment began to fade after Lincoln's first inaugural, when he offered a delicately worded olive branch to the seven Southern states that had seceded from the Union: "We are not enemies, but friends," he said. "We must not be enemies."

The offer was turned down, and war consumed the rest of Lincoln's presidency. Wilson expertly demonstrates just how much Lincoln used his flair for language to influence public opinion. Lincoln refused to give unscripted speeches, painstakingly drafting and redrafting his words before presenting them to an audience. By the time he was assassinated, it was clear that his pen had become as mighty as any sword: The Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural (in which, only a month before he died, Lincoln asked Americans to pursue peace "with malice toward none") continue to define the way the Civil War is remembered.

THE GETTYSBURG GOSPEL The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows

By Gabor Boritt

Simon & Schuster, $28

The Gettysburg Address, more than any other piece of his writing, dominates the popular memory of Lincoln. Given at the dedication of the new national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., in November 1863, just four months after the battle there that turned the tide of the war, Lincoln's speech was nine sentences long; it took only two minutes to read. And its simple elegance -- "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here" -- has gained iconic status. Garry Wills, in his seminal Lincoln at Gettysburg, went so far as to say that Lincoln's speech "remade America."

That's not what people thought at the time, insists Gabor Boritt, the director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. In fact, he writes in the enjoyable, closely argued The Gettysburg Gospel, Lincoln's remarks were barely heard by many listeners, who were surprised when he sat down so quickly. His words were widely misreported. ("Four score and seven years ago," was shortened to "Ninety years ago" in some newspapers.) And they were generally misunderstood: Edward Everett, the former senator who spoke before Lincoln, got most of the press afterward, which noted only that the president had given a few "dedicatory remarks."

Once the speech was published in full, of course, it had its desired effect: steeling the resolve of a nation confronted with so much death. But adulation on a grand scale would have to wait. Only with Lincoln's assassination -- and, Boritt insists, when failed postwar attempts at reconstruction revealed the hollowness of emancipation -- did his simple words take on deeper meaning. "A generation had to pass," Boritt writes, "before his 'few appropriate remarks' grew into the Gettysburg Address."

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