The modern educators who read history -- plainly very few and far between -- must be unanimously horrified by what history tells them of the education of Abraham Lincoln. Here was the unique American saint. Here was the finest English prose stylist who ever inhabited the White House. Here, above all, was one of the very great presidents a kindly Providence has provided for this country on each of the three occasions when the nation's future was in grave peril. Yet by the standards of the modern educators, he had no education at all.
Or rather what Lincoln read and learned is neither read, nor learned, nor even taught in any normal American school or university today; and Lincoln, per contra, wen through life without the slightest acquaintance with the social sciences, in happy ignorance of the brand of English favored by the Modern Language Association, without the guidance of economists or computer specialists, and in general in the darkest depths of untaught ignorance.
Once the fact has been faced, I cannot help but feel that a good deal is to be learned from the nature of Abraham Lincoln's intellectual preparation. He said himself that, during his early life, he had in all no more than about a year of schooling. The irregular intervals at school were only enough -- and, again, this is his own testimony -- to teach him to read and write and do simple arithmetic. Then, when he was a young man, he tackled Euclid on his own and mastered the first six books. Otherwise, he had no acquaintance with any normal school texts of today.
His texts, instead, were first of all the Bible and Shakespeare. Lincoln's Bible was the noble King James version, the repository of the most beautiful, most awe-inspiring prose in our language, and the most truly great work known to me which was produced by a committee -- although of course the committee had a matchless leader in Lancelot Andrewes. Today, I do not suppose as many as one university student in a thousand has ever read so much as a chapter of the Bible in the King James version, and I fear the same ratio of ignorance prevails among American university professors. But Lincoln knew the whole Bible -- and he knew the Bible so well, too, that he had most of it by heart.
Lincoln's knowledge of Shakespeare was considerably less complete than his knowledge of the Bible. The comedies do not seem to have attracted him, and these were probably the plays of Shakespeare which he confessed he had never read. His favorites were the tragedies and the histories, and among the tragedies, he put first "Lear," "Hamlet" and (I think oddly) "especially Macbeth." He liked reading his favorites almost better than seeing them acted. "It matters not to me," he said once, "whether Shakespeare be well or ill acted; with him, the thought suffices." So one must conclude that Shakespeare's miraculous insights into the ways of the world and ins and outs of human character meant rather more to Lincoln than Shakespeare's poetry. Yet the poetry meant much, too. He not infrequently recited the great soliloquies, sometimes in the course of important policy discussions, and on a five-hour boat trip to City Point, after Appomattox, he passed the time for his companions with Shakespeare readings. It is interesting trying to imagine a similar journey by water with one of our last three presidents.
After the Bible and Shakespeare, history was his main study. As a young man in New Salem, he read the whole of Gibbon and all of Rollin's history of the world, a standard work of that time in several volumes, with so much space devoted to the Greek and Roman history that you might have supposed the world a much narrower and less various place than it happens to be. In an early address, Lincoln also touched on the subject of education and as first priority recommended "every man to read the history of his own and other countries." The humorists of his time, like Artemus Ward, also diverted Lincoln, as was natural, for he was a great humorist himself. But except for John Stuart Mill's essays, and especially the essay on liberty, he seems to have felt a positive distaste for political theory as well as abstract philosophy, and he had no scientific bent.
The first point that strikes you about the foregoing tale of books from which Abraham Lincoln drew his chief intellectual capital is its extreme shortness. But the second point that strikes you is the extraordinarily high average quality of the books. Maybe, indeed, Lincoln's way was rather better than our way. If all of us learned to express ourselves as Lincoln did -- by all but getting by heart the King James version -- we might even have the cure of the gummy tide of jargon and pseudoscientific pretentiousness which is spreading through the English language of today. Learning from the Bible, I must hasten to add, gave Lincoln's language no tinge of archaism. What he mainly learned, I think, was the extraordinary power of that committee which prepared the King James version to tell stories or to express ideas or to soar into sublime poetry, while rarely using any but short declaratory sentences almost unassisted by the ornament of adjectives and adverbs.
Until recently, every American who was not absolutely illiterate knew the Bible a little, and the vast majority of Americans knew the Bible rather intimately. In all its different aspects, moreover, the Bible contributed enormously to the life of this country, and not least in its aspects as an historical miscellany. Indeed, I am firmly convinced that the fact the American people have so largely lost touch with the Bible in recent years goes far to explain one of the most perplexing features of modern American life.
In brief, the American people of today have lost the sense of history which was certainly possessed by the Americans of the Revolutionary years and the Civil War years and even the Americans of the years of the first and second world wars. Having lost our sense of history, most of us expect the world to be a bland, undangerous place and grow indignant when the world turns harsh and risks and perils loom on many sides. The Bible, it seems to me, was the main source of the former American sense of history, instructing the many millions who had no opportunity to acquire wider historical knowledge. The Bible was enough, too, for, as I believe, the first need of anyone aspiring to possess a minimal sense of history is the realization that the historical process is and always has been inherently harsh and risky. And in the Old Testament particularly, this harshness and riskiness are only too apparent. I think it would be an immense gain if all members of all the history departments in all our American colleges and universities were required to get most of the Bible by heart, just as Lincoln did. It would be another great gain if all the members of university history departments were required to have Lincoln's knowledge of the story of the classical world, for that is where all of us in the West began. But maybe the greatest gain of all would be achieved if there were no university history departments with formerly great survey courses damply entitled "Social Science I," as is now the case at Harvard.
This article is adopted from a speech Joseph Alsop gave on the eve of Lincoln's Birthday at Franklin and Marshall College in 1982.