In the aftermath of Sept. 11, a call-in program on the public affairs network C-SPAN asked listeners to share what works they were reading for comfort and inspiration in these turbulent times. A large measure of the audience reported turning to works about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
A worthy offering in that category is the compact and thrilling dissection of "Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural," by Ronald C. White, Jr. (Simon and Schuster, 203 pages, $24).
With admirable economy, White gives us Lincoln the man, the politician, the orator and (my interpretation) the saint at his most thoughtful and brilliant moment, 41 days before his assassination.
The book is simple in form. White sets the scene in the first chapter and then devotes each succeeding chapter to one paragraph of the address -- a mere 703 words in all, delivered in seven minutes of Lincoln's slow and deliberate speech. Included, and of great value, are a facsimile of the speech in Lincoln's handwriting and a prescient photograph, the only one ever taken of Lincoln speaking, that shows John Wilkes Booth among the spectators.
The day was March 4, 1865. Rain and wind had turned the nation's capital into a sea of mud. Still, more than 50,000 people streamed into town. Eyewitnesses testify to their "good-natured" tolerance of the conditions. Almost half the crowd was African-American, dressed in bright colors and best finery.
A phenomenon recorded in several accounts describes the moment when Lincoln began to speak. The rain ceased, the clouds blew away and a peaceful and lovely sunshine poured down from the sky.
Yet Lincoln faced an audience anxious in mood. The war was not quite over -- Lee's surrender at Appomattox was a month away. The nation had endured unthinkable carnage and ruin both in property and the loss of 620,000 lives and was still deeply divided on what appeared to be an uncertain peace. Lincoln's task -- to calm, instruct, and heal -- was mighty.
Resolutely, he spoke the immortal words that Frederick Douglass, present at the speech, later told the president were "more like a sermon than a state paper."
In our present day of speech writers and ghost writers, it is wonderful to contemplate this great leader, taking a pencil stub and scribbling on cardboard boxes, his favorite writing material, to create the address that is today carved in marble on his memorial.
White acknowledges the phrase "With malice toward none; with charity for all ... " is the most quoted of the speech. He calls these "sacred words" and "Lincoln's legacy to the nation." As he explicates each paragraph and phrase, referring to Lincoln's thoughts and ideas as they evolved during his life, White re-creates the moment of the speech in a way that is whole and alive.
As a professor of theology, White is particularly adept at analyzing Lincoln's biblical references and putting them in context. His discussion of the meaning of the word "charity" is especially insightful.
Notwithstanding White's credentials as a scholar, the appeal of this book lies in his affectionate and admiring descriptions of Lincoln as a young man and later statesman, struggling to "... overcome his own physical appearance to win the right to be heard."
White devotes a satisfying portion of his text to helping the reader understand how Lincoln sounded when he spoke and how he labored over his speeches, punctuating them for the ear.
Fascination with Abraham Lincoln began in his day and has remained high. His personality is too large to be contained in any one volume. It is gratifying that White has come up with fresh interpretations and commentary. This book is crammed with illuminating details. The story of the Fort Pillow massacre that prompted the commander's widow Mary Booth to ask for pensions for the common-law wives of slain black soldiers -- and Lincoln's getting this legislation passed -- is reason enough to read this book.
It is often said Abraham Lincoln could not be elected president today because he would not do well on television. After reading the history of this one speech, I'm convinced this is utterly untrue and Lincoln would be a compelling presence on TV. Even as a young man, thirsting with ambition, Lincoln knew he had to present himself in the public arena to win people's attention and confidence. Fully aware of his awkward manners and looks, he used his wit and personal magnetism to become the man Pablo Picasso called "the greatest American."
Although Picasso amassed a huge collection of Lincoln memorabilia, he never attempted a portrait. That seems appropriate. It is clear from White's book that Lincoln's true portrait is in his words, written and spoken.
"Neither vindication nor triumphalism is present in the Second Inaugural. At the bedrock is Lincoln's humility," declares White. The man agonized over how to go forward with justice and reconciliation, not falling into an easy "God Bless America" theology, but confronting our own ambiguities and hypocrisies.
Lincoln presents few answers and instead encourages us to ask difficult questions. That is exactly what we need always, but especially now, as White so beautifully reminds us.