Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

President Lincoln, Now More Than Ever Abe Lincoln Wielded a Precise Pen. a Scholarly Collection of Essays Sheds New Light on How the President 'Used Language to Change History'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

President Lincoln, Now More Than Ever Abe Lincoln Wielded a Precise Pen. a Scholarly Collection of Essays Sheds New Light on How the President 'Used Language to Change History'

Article excerpt

"THE WRITINGS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN"

Edited and with an introduction by Steven B. Smith

Yale University Press ($18)

In Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, given after four years of war, he offers two passages from the Gospels that seem at odds with each other.

The first is from Matthew 7:1: "Let us judge not that we be not judged." Whatever violence Southern people do by "wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces," Lincoln says, they are just what we would be in their situation.

The second sounds a different note. Quoting from Matthew 18:7, Lincoln suggests that circumstances like geography and culture do not absolve the actor of his guilt: "Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh."

Lincoln's tricky theological problem -- how to understand guilt and responsibility in relation to the web of circumstances that partly confine an action -- is the subject of Yale political science professor Steven B. Smith's essay at the close of "The Writings of Abraham Lincoln," a selection that Mr. Smith also edited.

Mr. Smith's essay, like the three others that accompany this finely organized collection, is about language -- how Lincoln used language to change history and how Lincoln shaped America's political tongue itself. With equal attention to the political and philosophical forces pressing on the president, the book offers a penetrating account of how Lincoln, in laying the groundwork for a new public opinion, insisted on truths his opponents had put in peril: that ideas breathed, and words mattered.

* * *

In the book's most poetic essay, University of Chicago professor Ralph Lerner documents Lincoln's efforts to "reconceive American nationality" by giving a prominence to the universal ideals of the Declaration of Independence that they had never known.

In another essay, Danilo Petranovich of Yale agrees, but asks that we not allow Lincoln's political poetry to obscure "the more radical vision of American national identity" -- one where the Union as then constituted was not worth saving -- that Lincoln preached.

Finally, Michigan State University professor Benjamin Kleinerman makes a difficult argument that a close reading of Lincoln's writings shows that he believed more deeply in the constraints on executive power than the average observer has been led to assume.

But it is Mr. Smith's essay that takes on the collection's trickiest, and most consequential, question: The meaning of the speech Mr. Smith calls "the single greatest expression of American civil theology," Lincoln's "modern Sermon on the Mount."

Mr. Smith shows how Lincoln goes beyond the language of natural law to make an argument primarily religious in nature: that the purposes of the Almighty are perfect and unknowable and war is the justice due to the South for endorsing and the North for acquiescing to the national sin of slavery. …

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