Douglas Wilson, Lincoln scholar and co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, gave new insight into the way Abraham Lincoln studied, contemplated, and wrote language. In addition to being the sixteenth president, Lincoln was also a lover of words. The lecture was sponsored by the Burkhardt Lecture fund. Wilson, introduced by Associate Professor of History, Konrad Hamilton, paid tribute to the Burkhardt family for recognizing the importance of scholarship before starting his lecture.
“In 1861, the public did not know, although bereft of a formal education, as a boy, Lincoln was obsessed by words and meaning,” Wilson said.
His early writing showed sensitivity in meanings and he delighted in word play. As a boy, he had a passion for clarity of expression. His stepmother would say “the boy was pestered to find the words for his own ideas.”
This obsession with language continued into adulthood as Lincoln immersed himself in a constant state of thought and contemplation — almost haunted by his inability to stop thinking.
As a lawyer, he used his love of language to his advantage. Lincoln was involved in a court case in which 30 men were arrested for playing card games. There were two indictments for two separate card games — Seven Up and Old Sledge. All were acquitted because, as Lincoln pointed out, Seven Up and Old Sledge were the same game.
Lincoln’s favorite writer was Shakespeare, he favored Macbeth over all of Shakespeare’s plays because of its focus on equivocation. Lincoln used the concept of verbal equivocation during the center of historical crisis to question and describe the concept of liberty as viewed by two separate perspectives.
During a speech in Baltimore in 1864, the famed president said, “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare ‘for liberty’; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”
This quote is pertinent today as many events and measures done in the name of liberty could be viewed as tyranny. In a class of his own, Lincoln, widely thought to be the greatest US President, exhibited characteristics unexpected of politicians today: directness and clarity.
As a boy, he read every book he could get his hands on. He especially liked Aesop’s fables as he used the metaphor of the wolf and the sheep in the Baltimore speech to further explain liberty.
“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one,” said Lincoln. “Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.”
Lincoln relished metaphorical potential. In a Senate speech in 1858, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, a wealthy southern plantation owner, introduced the mud-sill theory. A mud-sill, the lowest threshold that supports the foundation for a building, was used to describe the lowest class who did menial duties to support the upper class.
In response to this, for the Wisconsin Agricultural Fair in 1859, the speech Lincoln gave was not a political speech, “but it had a definite political edge as Lincoln opened the speech by emphasizing the good agricultural fairs do by bringing people together and the appeal with specific words — stranger and enemy.”
This metaphor of a mud-sill played into Lincolns’ hands. Lincoln’s aim was clarity but he did not sacrifice persuasiveness. He had a sense of cadence and variety of rhyme. It was prose poetry as seen in the best presidential writing. His speech and persuasiveness was enhanced with the crowd identification with the “mud-sill.” Lincoln had an affinity for electrifying language. His argument quickened and it was “more than a little audacious.”
Lincoln said, “By the ‘mud-sill’ theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be — all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all.”
In Lincoln’s pursuit of clarity, what he wanted was to be understood by all classes. He struggled to see ideas exactly and convey language precisely that he’d doubly explain things. He wanted to distinctly be understood by the common people. Though Lincoln “lived in an era of elevated diction,” he “perfected discourse of plain language.” Seeing this, sympathetic journalists used the word “peculiar” to describe Lincoln’s prose.
Lincoln’s use of language has varied and changed throughout his political career. The first complete published Lincoln speech was given at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in 1838.
Compare the opening of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” to his Lyceum speech: “Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.”
Not long after the Lyceum speech, his diction changed. As Wilson said, “It would be the last ‘edifice’ he would ‘uprear.’” His word index also changed after 1838: ‘prattle’ was one of the words banished from his written vocabulary and never used again.
His Sub-Treasury speech was absent of 25-cent words and focused intensely on forceful, direct language. Some people did not like Lincoln’s direct speaking style. Frederick Douglass, at first, thought Lincoln’s plain style represented his shortcomings. However, after the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass became an admirer of Lincoln and his use of language. Lincoln addressed his opponents directly as he did with Horace Greeley, the editorial voice of the New York Tribune, who asked him what his policies were during the Civil War, “As to the policy I ‘seem to be pursuing’ as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. I would save the Union.”