Book Review: The Annotated Lincoln
edited by Harold Holzer and Thomas Horrocks
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016
No American President is more closely associated with the written word than Abraham Lincoln, despite the fact that there have been presidents who were better writers. No American President is more thoroughly characterized as eloquent, despite the fact that a good many of them were in fact far better spoken. Anthologies of Lincoln’s writings appear regularly and do well in bookstores (Paul Angle’s 1992 The Living Lincoln being one of the best relatively recent examples), presenting again for readers the famous words of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Cooper Union speech, the Gettysburg Address, and the other slim documents whose words are chiseled in stone all over the capital.
New from the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press is what surely constitutes the crown jewel of such anthologies, The Annotated Lincoln, edited by Harold Holzer and Thomas Horrocks. The book is oversized and imposingly heavy, with thick creamy pages and lavishly generous illustrations. It’s edited by Thomas Horrocks, author of Lincoln’s Campaign Biographies and Harold Holzer, probably the world’s foremost Lincoln scholar, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press and 2008’s scintillating Lincoln President-Elect, and their commentary runs alongside the text on virtually every page, after a smart and mercifully brief Introduction in which they quote Lincoln’s son Robert relating that he never saw his father dictate prose – that he was instead a careful, methodical writer on paper. “He seemed to think nothing of the labor of writing personally and was accustomed to make many scraps, notes and memoranda.”
As is usual in collections of this kind, the experience of reading Lincoln intensely broadens the experience of understanding him. He wrote in an age before professional speechwriters, and he cared less than most politicians about the studied art of opacity, but even so, his speaking career so often involved stumping and crowd-pleasing that reading or re-reading such pieces (especially with the crowd reactions interpolated, which our editors kindly do) is unfailingly eye-opening. In his debate with Stephen Douglas in Charleston, Illinois in September of 1858, we see a far less saintly Lincoln than the one enshrined in national myth, a Lincoln clearly enjoying making his audience laugh – even if it’s accomplished coarsely. “I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men,” he tells the Charleston audience, and once he’s got them reassured, he proceeds to get them laughing – while masterfully lampooning his opponent and his opponent’s backers:
I will also add to the remarks I have made, (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject,) that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there were no law to keep them from it, (Laughter) but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no laws to keep them from it, (Roars of laughter) I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marriage of white people with negroes. (Continued laughter and applause)
A very full sense of Lincoln the man comes through in these pages, accompanied throughout by an unsettlingly clear sense of Lincoln the political opportunist – and Lincoln the worse things. In his first Inaugural Address, given to Congress in March of 1861, for instance, he mildly says:
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered There has never been any reasonable grounds for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed, and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you.
In their accompanying note, Holzer and Horrocks very politely write:
During the so-called Secession Winter between election day and the inauguration, Lincoln had steadfastly refused to provide new assurances to the South that he was willing to leave slavery alone where it already existed. Confiding to New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond, Lincoln insisted that at one time the fire-eating secessionists were “political fiends.” Now, he claimed, “’party malice’ and not ‘public good’ possesses them entirely, they seek a sign and no sign shall be given them.” The president-elect had steadfastly remained silent on doctrinal points.
In other words, Lincoln was lying, and it’s not the only time we see such fallible behavior in The Annotated Lincoln. It’s curiously refreshing; we see him grappling with the most profound challenges any US President had to face, but we also see him double-talking and dissembling and cracking wise and mugging for the gallery. We see how lacerating his wit could be at the expense of his enemies, and we see how embracing his words could be for his friends – and gradually, over the course of a straight-through reading of the book, we see a truly remarkable man emerging, fashioning himself out of setbacks and unexpected triumphs, discarding old selves and groping – blindly, hesitantly, but with scarcely a backward step – into a new and entirely unique rhetorical identity.
You get to 1865 wishing more than anything that The Annotated Lincoln went on to include the Autobiography Lincoln would write in 1870. In this way all Lincoln anthologies contrive to break our hearts all over again.