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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 02:32 pm

The Great Communicator

Lincoln wrote to shape and save a nation

Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of WordsBy Douglas L. Wilson (Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, November 2006, $26.95)

Abraham Lincoln said goodbye to Springfield in a succinct, emotion-filled speech on Feb. 11, 1861. “To this place, and the kindness of these people,” Lincoln said, “I owe every thing.” Residents of the capital city should know the Farewell Address: It’s been republished frequently, and the full text is on display at the presidential museum.

That speech was written down at the request of a newspaperman as Lincoln’s train left for Washington, D.C. The words that Lincoln actually spoke, according to various accounts, were different in tone and detail. Though subtle, those differences are telling — and that’s the point of Lincoln’s Sword, an engaging new work by Douglas Wilson, a distinguished Lincoln scholar at Knox College in Galesburg.

In his brief remarks at the Great Western Railway station, Lincoln appealed to the crowd for prayers, and they responded emotionally with shouts of “We will do it” — but in his later version, Lincoln played down the moment. Why? Lincoln may have had second thoughts about making his first public statement as president-elect “a plea for prayers,” Wilson writes.?Lincoln wanted to look confident and resolute, not desperate for divine intervention.

Anyone familiar with Lincoln’s writing already has an innate sense of the president’s economical and clear prose style, impeccable timing, and remarkable sense of his audience. Wilson shows that the writing didn’t come easily: Lincoln worked at it. Deconstructing key Lincoln presidential papers, Wilson lets us understand the thought process involved in their creation — the corrections, amendments, amplifications, and revisions upon revisions. If anybody needed evidence that writing — at least, writing seriously — can be a difficult, tedious, and lonely craft, here it is. We watch as Lincoln carefully and deliberately crafts the critical documents of his presidency; we follow as his first major message to Congress, outlining what the federal government must do to respond to the Confederacy, is repeatedly rewritten, doubling in the process to 6,400 words.

Many of Lincoln’s contemporaries could not believe that the president insisted on doing his own writing; it was a measure of Lincoln’s inexperience as an executive, they said, that he wouldn’t delegate this duty. But Wilson reminds us of the nation’s deep divisions — and that many in the North were content to see the South go its own way. Lincoln understood that he had a unique opportunity to define the issues and shape the beliefs of a nation in crisis. This was a responsibility he would not surrender — a weapon he would not relinquish.

Lincoln’s Sword is a valuable addition to works on the 16th president, but it’s also an interesting exploration of the craft of writing and the power of words and ideas. It goes a long way toward answering the question of why Lincoln’s influence endures.

Contact Roland Klose at