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How Lincoln won the War with Words

Washington D.C., March 4, 1861 -- Imagine the man being administered the Presidential oath is not Abraham Lincoln but Jefferson Davis. Would it have changed the outcome of the Civil War?

Yes. So say some Civil War historians, including David M. Potter, who taught at both Yale and Stanford. According to Dr. Potter, Davis’s principle failure was an inability to communicate effectively with other Confederate leaders and with the southern people. As Potter put it, Davis seemed to think in abstractions and to speak in platitudes.

In the beginning, it didn’t matter that Davis was a poor communicator. The South had everything in its favor: the best leadership, the best generals, the best horsemen, the best sharpshooters, coupled with a burning desire to be free of the North. No one had to be told what the fight was about.

The North was industrialized and had the concentrated wealth of Eastern bankers, but lacked unity. Most of all, it lacked the South’s resolve to take up arms and fight. What did an Ohio farm boy care if southern states seceded? With the exception of a handful of abolitionists, no one wanted to fight a war to end slavery, least of all Lincoln (as he stated in his Inaugural Address).

Jefferson Davis didn’t have to say anything to attract a volunteer army. It was Lincoln who had to find a cause for the North to rally around. The initial reasoning he had to work with amounted to an abstraction: preserving the union. After the first wave of volunteers enlisted, Lincoln had to resort to the draft to fill the ranks of northern armies.

Lincoln’s best general was a man who loved the trappings of generalship and none of the fighting: George B. McClellan. McClellan drilled the Army of the Potomac endlessly by day, attended Washington Balls held in his honor at night, and ignored Lincoln’s pleas to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia.

With his strong jaw, good hair, and erect bearing, Jefferson Davis looked like a Greek Statue come to life. His very appearance seemed to embody Southern resolve.

Abraham Lincoln’s appearance did not inspire confidence. He was a sloucher and his clothes rarely fit him well. When he spoke, it was not in a commanding baritone but in a high-pitched voice. He had a fondness for rough stories and a tooth-sucking country manner that annoyed Easterners to no end. General McClellan grew to loathe him and called him “the original baboon.”

After a number of stunning defeats, the war might have ended after two years--yet another large, industrialized nation losing to a determined smaller agrarian nation--had not Lincoln found the words to give purpose and meaning to the war.

The turning point was not more guns or superior numbers but Lincoln’s words and how he expressed them.

Lincoln had the ability to express a hard, unsentimental truth in the barest language every tinker and taylor could understand. Example:

“I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.” And:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

Where did Lincoln get this ability? Not in school. While Davis received one of the best educations money can buy, had excellent training in the classics, in rhetoric, logic, literature and science, Lincoln had what amounted to one year of formal schooling in the typical rote-learning “blab schools” of the day.

Lincoln was self-educated. His favorite books were the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Shakespeare’s plays. What do these four have in common? They are rich in figurative language--in allegory, parable, fable, metaphor--in images that illustrate something more profound than their surface appearance.

Lincoln perfected his writing and speaking skills as an attorney riding circuit in central and southern Illinois. In analyzing a case, writing a letter, preparing a speech, or making a decision, a fellow lawyer described Lincoln as “slow, calculating, methodical, and accurate.” Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, said that while Lincoln “thought slowly and acted slowly,” he “not only went to the root of the question, but dug up the root, and separated and analyzed every fibre of it.”

In a legal case or a political debate, recalled another attorney, Lincoln would concede non-essential points to his opponent, lulling him into a false sense of complacency. “But giving away six points and carrying the seventh he carried the case . . . the whole case hanging on the seventh. . . . Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man would wind up with his back in a ditch.”

Born in rural Kentucky and raised in rural Indiana, Lincoln knew how to speak to a jury comprised of country folk because he was one himself. How did he speak outside the courtroom, to relatively sophisticated townspeople in upstate Illinois during the Lincoln-Douglas debates? To the Republican National Convention in Chicago? To a political rally in New York City or in Boston, Massachusetts, or to the nation as President? In the same plain and direct language, riddled with commonplace metaphors.

By contrast, Jefferson Davis’s prose contained few metaphors of any kind. It was relentlessly literal. It was formal, precise, logical, but also stiff, cold, and abstract.

The few metaphors he used to illustrate his points were lifeless--references to sowing the seeds of discontent and thereby harvesting defeat.

Throughout his life one of Lincoln’s main concerns was that everyone understand precisely what he was saying. A colleague who praised this quality once asked him where his concern with exact clarity came from.

“Among my earliest recollections I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand,” he said. “I don't think I ever got angry at anything else in my life. But that always disturbed my temper; and has ever since. I can remember going to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, though I often tried to, when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it; and when I thought I had got it, I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over, until I put it in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me."

What Lincoln did was to clarify the issues that had caused the war, and in so doing gave the North a cause worth fighting for. The issue as Lincoln saw it was liberty. The South said it was fighting to preserve liberty. This may sound strange to us today. Prior to the Civil War, however, liberty had a different meaning. In the South, liberty meant the right to property, the right to own slaves.

Southerners, said an Alabama newspaper in 1861, were a “liberty loving people,” and therefore “the same spirit of freedom and independence that impelled our Fathers to the separation from the British Government” would inspire the South’s fight for independence from a tyrannical and oppressive government dominated by “Black Republican Yankees.” A Georgia secessionist declared that southerners would be “either slaves in the Union or freemen out of it.” According to another Southern secessionist, without slavery to uphold free institutions there would be no liberty.

Such reasoning could not go unignored by a lawyer as sharp as Lincoln. He saw it as an opportunity to focus the North’s attention on the true meaning of the war--liberty for everyone. Without it, the nation could not long endure.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty,” Lincoln said in a speech given in April of 1864. “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 liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.”

Lincoln illustrated his point with a parable about animals. “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat,” he said, “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 is a black one. 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.”

The shepherd in this fable was, of course, Lincoln himself; the black sheep was the slave, and the wolf his owner. Lincoln chose to tell this story in Baltimore, a city where three years earlier a regiment of Massachusetts soldiers on their way to defend the capital had been attacked by a mob. This incident produced, among other things, one of the Confederacy’s favorite poems, set to music as “Maryland, My Maryland,” and written by a native of Baltimore in which Lincoln is denounced as a “despot” and “tyrant” trying to snuff out liberty in Maryland and in the South.

Even as Lincoln spoke, in April 1864, Marylanders were debating a proposal to amend their own constitution to abolish slavery in their state--a proposal that split the white population down the middle, with one side supporting it as a step toward liberty, the other condemning it as a despotic blow against liberty.

As Lincoln made clear, the only liberty that southern whites seemed to believe in was “the liberty of making slaves of other people.”

“That is the real issue,” Lincoln said. “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--from the beginning of time. The one is the common right of humanity and the other is the divine right of kings. . . . No matter in what shape it comes, whether from a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

Even before he committed himself in the second year of the Civil War to emancipation as a war aim, Lincoln repeatedly insisted that it was the North, not the South, that fought to preserve the true American heritage of liberty--liberty for all men.

Why fight to preserve the Union? Because the United States represented, in Lincoln’t words, “the last, best hope” for the survival of republican liberties in the world. European conservatives regularly predicted that this upstart democracy would collapse; a successful rebellion by the South would confirm that prediction.

“The central idea pervading this struggle,” said Lincoln in 1862, “is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.” The struggle, moreover, was “not altogether for today. It is for a vast future” for it “presents to the whole family of man, the question whether a constitutional republic, a democracy,” a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, “can long endure.”

On another occasion, Lincoln said the war “is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men--to lift artificial weights from all shoulders--to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all”--black as well as white--“to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

In “giving freedom to the slave,” said Lincoln, “we assure freedom to the free.”

It was when Lincoln defined the purpose and true meaning of the war that the tide began to turn against the South.

The summation of Lincoln’s argument is best expressed in his literary masterpiece, “The Gettysburg Address” in which he weaves together three parallel sets of three images: (1) past, present, future; (2) continent, nation, battlefield; and (3) birth death, rebirth.

In “Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution” by James M. McPherson, from which I drew much of this material, he sums up these three sets of images:

“Four score and seven years in the past our fathers conceived and brought forth on this continent a nation that stood for something important in the world: the proposition that all men are created equal. Now, our generation faces a great war testing whether such a nation standing for such an ideal can survive. In dedicating the cemetery on this battlefield, the living must take inspiration to finish the task that those who lie buried here nobly advanced by giving the last full measure of their devotion. Life and death in this passage have a paradoxical but metaphorical relationship: men died that the nation might live, yet metaphorically the old Union also died, and with it died the institution of slavery. After these deaths, the nation must have a ‘new birth of freedom’ so that the government of, by, and for the people that our fathers conceived and brought forth in the past ‘shall not perish from the earth’ but be preserved as a legacy for the future.”

In the English language, there have been more books written about Abraham Lincoln than anyone with the exception of Jesus Christ.

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