Richard Nisley


Abraham Lincoln on his Birthday
History - American Released - Feb 02, 2019
February 12 is Abraham Lincoln's birthday: below are two reviews I wrote, one of a movie, the second of a book; the subject is, of course, Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln, (2013 movie):

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is as much about passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which ended slavery) as it is about the man himself. This is a good thing, as there’s nothing quite like conflict to reveal character, and Abraham Lincoln was a man of granite-like character. He was not a flatterer, neither was he moved by flattery. He was compassionate, honest, plain-spoke,, and while every inch a politician, he never stooped to pettiness, to jealousy, to name-calling, or to vindictiveness. As Alistair Cooke once said of him (and the movie illustrates beautifully), “Lincoln had an extraordinary feel for the humanity of quite inhumane people and tolerated them long enough to get what he wanted from them—contractors, war profiteers, wheeler-dealers, the scum of the republic. He dignified the trade of politician like few men before or since.” Actor Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln so perfectly that one can't help but feel this is how Lincoln must have been. Tommy Lee Jones is likewise brilliant as the crotchety abolitionist Thadeus Stephens. Get this DVD for its "marrow-deep" humanity. It will restore your faith in people.

Abraham Lincoln (2009 book), by George McGovern

That's right, the author is George McGovern, the liberal Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for president against Richard Nixon, in1972. He is, in fact, a terrific writer. In this relatively short (155 pages) book, McGovern offers his insights, which are considerable, into our 16th president–as a politician and as a speech writer. The over-riding issue in Lincoln's day was slavery; the over-riding issue of the book is Lincoln's sterling character, particularly in dealing with slavery, the principle cause of the Civil War. Also addressed near the end of the book is Lincoln's masterful use of language and his gift for writing compelling speeches.

On the surface, Lincoln was born into a life that was not promising. He hated the hard-scrabble life of his father–which was farming–but otherwise had little hope of bettering his lot in life. Being a sensitive and unusually bright child, the fact that he suffered from depression throughout much of his life should not be surprising. His father, Thomas, was a particularly hard man who neither appreciated nor understood his son.

When Abraham was nine, his mother died of milk sickness which was going around at the time. Thomas quickly remarried a widow named Sarah Bush Johnson, who had three children of her own. Right away, she recognized Abraham as unusually bright, and encouraged him to develop his intellect. She gave him several of her books, books that would broaden his mind and influence his writing skills, particularly later in life, as a lawyer and a politician (more about that later). Among them: "Aesop's Fables," "The Pilgrim's Progress," "Robinson Crusoe," and "Webster's Speller." She came to love him as much or more than her own children. Many years later she said of him: "Abe was the best boy I ever saw. He never gave me a cross word . . ." He said of her that she had been "his best friend in the world" and that "no Son could love a Mother more than he loved her."

Meanwhile, the distance between Abraham and his father broadened ever wider. Thomas accepted that his son wanted to expand his mind rather than be a farmer, but he didn't like it. Abe said of his father, "he never learned me to love him." From Kentucky where Abraham was born, his father moved the family first to Indiana (where he met and married Sarah); and then to New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln grew into manhood, and discovered he had a knack for amusing people with his stories and self-deprecating humor. At the same time he found himself at the center of attention wherever people gathered, such was his charisma.

People saw a special quality in this rough-hewn young man with the pronounced Southern drawl: he was quick witted, honest and funny, and eager to learn. New Salem had a debating society which Abraham joined. He made friends, polished his elocution, borrowed books, and spent much of his time reading. What did he read? He favored the plays of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Burns. A local justice of the peace lent him books on the law, in particular "Revised Laws of Illinois." Lincoln also purchase a tattered volume of Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England," then the most popular legal text in the English speaking world. At some point he traveled back to Indiana to hear an acclaimed attorney named John Brackinbridge argue a case. Of the experience, Lincoln said, "I felt that if I could ever make speeches as good as that my soul would be satisfied."

Of this period in Lincoln's life the author writes: "(Lincoln) somehow recognized significant capabilities within himself and nurtured a determination to succeed."

He moved to Springfield, the state capital, and took up law as a profession. He rode the court circuit throughout the state, where he learned to speak to juries and win a number of cases. It was in Springfield where he met and wooed Mary Todd, whom, after a stormy courtship, he married.

She encouraged him to run for a seat in the U. S. Congress, which he won. By now, Lincoln was decidedly against slavery which "sickened" him. In his second year in office, he sought to put an end to slavery in the District of Columbia, believing that slavery was a monstrous embarrassment to the nation's capital. He failed. He also publicly opposed the Mexican War, which he believed was being fought to create new territory for the expansion of slavery. He returned to Springfield disillusioned and depressed. To a friend he wrote: "I neither expect, seek, or deserve" to return to Washington. Once home he dedicated himself to rebuilding his law practice. Taking cases in admiralty, commerce, criminal, and patent law, made Lincoln one of the most sought-after attorneys in the Midwest, and returned him to Washington, this time to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The slavery issue was making headlines across the nation, particularly with passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One of its biggest supporters was Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Lincoln feared slavery would spread, but he could not stand by and watch it happen. He had to speak out. In Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln gave his first great speech; it revived his political career and paved the way for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The debates made him a national political figure. He lost the 1858 Senate race to Douglas, but two years later, he was nominated by the Republican party to be their candidate for president of the United States.

On election day, Lincoln carried the Northeast and West, but failed to carry a single state below the Mason-Dixon line. In the end he tallied 180 electoral votes to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and only 12 for Douglas. But while those closet to him celebrated, Lincoln brooded. Though he held out hope that reason would prevail in the Deep South, he suspected the national divide over slavery was too great and that his years as president would be difficult ones. Fate had brought him to the White House, to lead the North in the most calamitous crisis of our nation's history.

Lincoln knew nothing of the art of war, but as with everything else in his life he proved to be a fast learner. After a few missteps, in Ulysses S. Grant, he found a general who would fight. Grant fought some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and in doing so defeated the one general no other Union general could whip–Robert E. Lee. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, in April of 1865, which ended the Civil War. Within a month, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington. "Now he belongs to the ages," said William Seward, his friend and one-time political rival, and Lincoln's Secretary of State.

"No one can understand the greatness of Lincoln in his own time and his place in history without reading some of his great speeches," writes McGovern. "Most of the addresses were carefully constructed by Lincoln–sometimes over periods of days or weeks, even months. He drew on extensive reading of the works of men he admired–Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. He kept on his writing desk copies of his own speeches that provided lines and ideas he might work into a speech at hand.

"Lincoln frequently pulled passages from out of the King James Bible, from the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament and from Christ and his disciples in the New Testament. He borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Robert Burns, 'Aesop's Fables,' and John Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress.' He also drew from his experience growing up in Kentucky and Indiana and from his legislative and lawyer years in Illinois. His mind and his command of diction were sharpened in his debates with his able, experienced opponent Senator Stephen Douglas. . . .

"Prior to the speech at Gettysburg, Lincoln had delivered four speeches that could be described as great: his speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854; his acceptance of the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate race against Stephen Douglas at Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858 (the 'house divided' speech); his speech at New York's Cooper Union on February 27, 1860 (which brought him to the attention of the Northeast); and his first inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1861. His second inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1865, was also deserving of the description 'great'–some would say it was his greatest speech.

"But it is the Gettysburg Address, although brief, that has lived in history as an enduring political and literary treasure. Its fame places it alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights . . . For it is in its 272 words that Lincoln redefined the meaning of the Union and of the sacrifice that had sanctified its preservation."

McGovern sums up: "Lincoln was the most masterful speechwriter of any president in our national history. Much of his success in the American political arena derived from his superior ability to draft compelling public addresses. Likewise, his high place in history rests heavily on his beautiful prose. He was a literary giant."

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