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Analysis: Looking for Lincoln in biographies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 10, 2009 - Abraham Lincoln is our great shape shifter. Two centuries after his birth, he keeps right on evolving with the rest of the country. Even the casual reader of biographies about our 16th president can see it. Most of the facts of his life are known, but perspective on that life keeps changing.

In his deathbed tribute, Edwin Stanton had it right: "Now he belongs to the ages." To which we might add: Every generation gets the Lincoln it needs.

The Eastern elite of his day saw Lincoln as an unlettered lightweight, an accidental president in over his head at a time of peril. His assassination at the close of the Civil War gave following generations a martyr who had saved the Union and freed the slaves. In recent decades, Lincoln biographers have given us a more complex vision of the man, psychological ticks and all.

And, just in time for this past election, Doris Kearns Goodwin gave us the post-partisan Lincoln, a student of human nature secure enough to invite political opponents into his Cabinet. Hers was a Lincoln who remained deliberate, even patient, as political events played out and the war ground on. Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was suited to last year's weariness over political divisions and public rancor.

Yet a more recent trio of Lincoln biographies touch on deeper needs in our political culture. As was made clear during the presidential campaign, we live in an age when words are cheap, when thoughtfulness is a weakness, when ideas can be strangled in the 24-hour news cycle.

So, now we get the Lincoln who understood that words matter, that ideas matter. Each of these three books, published within the past two years, addresses a different aspect of Lincoln's intellectual life. Taken as a whole, however, they give us a leader who managed to create a fuller understanding of our nation's founding principles while crafting a new language to express it.

Literature scholar Fred Kaplan's Lincoln was a precocious boy who went on to become one of our literary masters, a striking accomplishment for a politician. His Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer traces the president's mature ideas and writing style to his formative years. There's no question Lincoln was gifted, but the realization of those gifts was hard-won.

"Work, work, work, is the main thing," Lincoln said later about his years spent laboring over law texts. And this was true of his early studies. There would have been little incentive to grow beyond reading the Bible and Dilworth's Speller, a popular textbook with a self-improvement bent. The Speller, which included grammar lessons and stories from Aesop's fables, was first published in London in 1740 and widely reprinted. It's inspiring to think Lincoln might have read the 1747 edition produced by the Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin.

Lincoln also had access to his stepmother's copy of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Kaplan points to echoes of Crusoe in one of Lincoln's two most important addresses. "When a nation commits offenses, God will make a 'just retribution' in His inscrutable way [Defoe's hero said]. Lincoln was to write in his second inaugural address, 'If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences . . .'"

In his earliest years, Lincoln achieved an identity as bookish and smart. He began writing verse and satire, and developed a love of narrative, the source of his lifelong habit of telling stories to illustrate his points. Sometimes, jumping on any handy platform, he even delivered spontaneous lectures to childhood friends. Lincoln memorized the speeches of his hero Henry Clay, read biographies, history, poetry and selections from Shakespeare, which gave him his education in human nature. All the while, he was mastering a plain style of writing, a new American language in an age that valued ornament.

Historian Allen C. Guelzo's Lincoln is a rising politician who, in the course of hard-fought campaigns, was beginning to formulate the central themes of his political philosophy. His Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America was published in time for the 150th anniversary re-enactments of those debates last summer and fall. Seven were held across Illinois between Lincoln, a member of the newly minted Republican Party, and the incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. All were to address the issue of slavery and whether it should be legalized in the Western territories. Ultimately, though, the debates turned on the meaning of democracy itself.

Lincoln was little-known at the time. Douglas was at the height of his fame and his power. But the so-called Little Giant, who saw only the audience in front of him, delivered essentially the same points at each stop. Lincoln had the longer view. He saw the debates as a newspaper series and took the opportunity to develop his arguments over the course of the debates for a much larger audience. Both sides in all of the debates - running three hours each - were taken down in shorthand and shipped by rail to newspapers in Chicago, then transmitted to papers out East, a first in campaign history.

Douglas argued that democracy is a simple matter of popular sovereignty, the free choice of the voters. For him, the question need only be submitted fairly. Lincoln argued that democracy has a higher purpose: the opportunity to do right for the whole community. Slavery, because it violated natural rights, was wrong. Over the course of the debates, the question became whether a liberal democracy is about individual choice or the greater good. That debate, Guelzo writes, is ongoing.

Still, we know in hindsight that Douglas was on the wrong side of history. He won the election, but strategic blunders sent his political career into permanent decline. The debates, which were followed closely by a national audience, put Lincoln on track to become president.

Historian Douglas L. Wilson picks up this story as Lincoln was getting ready to leave Springfield for the nation's capital, where he would be forced by events to become America's greatest Persuader-in-Chief. His Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words is an absorbing look at Lincoln's writing habits. Wilson went through drafts of the president's reports, addresses, proclamations and published letters, and discovered a compulsive pre-writer and an extensive rewriter.

Lincoln began by scribbling ideas or bits of insight on scraps of paper. He would number those scraps and paste them in order. Next he would have them printed for mark-up, then printed again. In fact, Lincoln was such an exacting and confident writer that he battled over every comma with his editor in the government printing office. The key for Lincoln was hearing his written words, another habit picked up in boyhood. Once he even had a friend travel by train to the White House simply to listen to one of his pieces. After satisfying himself, Lincoln summarily bid his friend goodbye.

Lincoln was diligent about everything he wrote. Though drafts and versions of the Gettysburg Address were more haphazardly filed than some of his other writings, we now know that it would be out of character for Lincoln to dash off the address in one take on the back of an envelope while riding a train to the ceremony - a story told to generations of school children. It would be fair to say Lincoln had been working on the address for years, through the crucible of the war, through his career as a lawyer, state representative and congressman, and through those seven debates.

We could even say he was working on it while memorizing the speeches of Henry Clay. Wilson cites Lincoln's eulogy to Clay: "Mr. Clay's eloquence did not consist, as many fine specimens of eloquence [do], of types and figures - of antithesis, and elegant arrangement of words and sentences; but rather of that deeply earnest and impassioned tone, and manner, which can proceed only from great sincerity and a thorough conviction, in the speaker of the justice and importance of his cause. This it is, that truly touches the chords of human sympathy."

Lincoln clearly grew as a writer under pressure of the office. Wilson writes that, at the end, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, more than any writing during his presidency, shows "a resourceful and probing mind at work. No other case so aptly displays him as energetically engaged in finding and communicating perspective on a public issue." Further, Kaplan argues that Lincoln was the last president to write his own words. "[T]he challenge of a president himself struggling to find the conjunction between the right words and honest expression, a use of language that respects intellect, truth, and sincerity, has largely been abandoned."

In the course of that struggle, Lincoln gave us two of the finest masterpieces in the American literary and political canon: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural . One called for renewal of the nation's founding principles. The other, recognizing the shared offense of slavery and the shared price in blood, called for compassion in victory.

The late historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, who edited a two-volume collection for The Library of America, underscored the power of Lincoln's writing through the ages. While Lincoln's words had meaning for their time, Fehrenbacher wrote in an essay on the subject, "some of Lincoln's words have acquired transcendent meaning as contributions to the permanent literary treasure of the nation."

It's that transcendent meaning that enables each generation to get the Lincoln it needs.

Peggy Boyer Long, a former editor of Illinois Issues magazine, grew up in central Illinois where Lincoln is a continuing presence.