Abraham Lincoln… captivated by words, created by words, empowered by words, glorified by words. Reflections on his Cooper Union Speech, February27, 1860.

March 17, 2012 | Author: | Posted in Dr. Jeffrey Lant’s Article Archive

Abraham Lincoln February 27, 1860 in New York City by Mathew Brady, the day of his famous Cooper Union speech

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. 150 years ago, March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln (born 1809), became 16th president of the United States. And if you do not believe in destiny, fate, or kismet, even you will wonder at the undoubted fact that at the time of its maximum peril, the Great Republic should have found the perfect man to guide her affairs and so preside not over her premature dissolution (as so many thought and even wished) but her greatest trial, from which, terrible forge though it was, emerged the greatest of nations. Oh, yes, here was the hand of God, indeed… to the wonder of all… and as we know His ways are mysterious so we shouldn’t wonder at this man and his story… a story to be told in the words he loved, the words he mastered, the words he used to effect his great purpose… the words we all have at our disposal… but which only he used with such grace and power… and such resolve… the mark of the consummate master of our language and the great uses to which it can always rise…

For this tale, I have selected as the occasional music a tune Abraham Lincoln loved and tapped his toe to, “Jimmy Crack Corn”. It’s a frolicksome number thought to be a black face minstrel song of the 1840s. Like so much that touches Lincoln, it’s not quite what it appears to be…. that is, a black slave’s lament over his master’s death… it has indeed a subtext of rejoicing over that death and possibly having caused it by deliberate negligence…. “Dat Blue Tail Fly”… It is a feeling every slave must have thought at some time… which every master must have understood and feared… and from this seemingly unsolvable conundrum Lincoln freed both, saving the people, cleansing the Great Republic.

Without benefit of formal education… yet with every necessary word to hand.

Consider the matter of Illinois, the 21st state, frontier of the Great Republic in 1818 when it was admitted to the Union. It was a land firmly focused on the bright future all were certain was coming… the better to obliterate and make bearable the rigors and unceasing travails of the present. The land was rich… the richness of the people would soon follow.

In this land of future promise, inchoate, Lincoln, like all those who delight in words, found his labors lightened and vista magnified by books, and thanks to the good and helpful work of Robert Bray (2007), we may learn just what books he possessed, and so which words he knew, by whom rendered, and how.

It is impossible to know in just what order young Lincoln found the books, read the books, and with what degree of joy and enthusiasm, for Lincoln (unlike many who love and live by words) was not a great writer of marginal commentary, in which reader engages in often enraged tete-a-tete with author. Such marginalia are cream to any biographer, but in Lincoln’s case were infrequent.

In any event, we can surmise that he learned his words first from the great King James version of The Bible, perhaps the most influential and certainly most lyric book in the language. If so, it bestowed on him not only the words but their sonority, cadence and above all, moral certainty, all of which were critical in the development of his mature style and so helped save a great nation from self-destruction. There followed first the odd volume, happily received, then a steady trickle, then the glorious days when he could have as many books, and so as many words, as he wanted; paradise to a man for whom each word, and every book, was a key to greater understanding of the cosmos… and himself…

Thus, E.A. Andrews and S. Stoddard “A Grammar of the Latin Language” (1836); Nathan Bailey “Dictionary of English Etymology” (1721); James Barclay “Dictionary” (1774); George Bancroft “History of the United States (1834); Francis Bacon “Essays” (1625); John Bunyan “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678); Benjamin Franklin “Autobiography” (1818); Edward Gibbon “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776)…

… and one great poet after another, for as Lincoln learned, as every word smith must learn, there can be no mastery of words where there is no understanding of poets and their precise, meticulous craft… and so one finds without surprise the works of Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Thomas Gray whose “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) he so loved… with its sad beauty, lines which, once read, seem to have been written for Lincoln himself:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike the inevitable hour, the paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

It was a thought Lincoln knew only too well, and he had but to touch this poem to think on its powerful, unanswerable, haunting words, including these…

“Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne”… but not yet… not yet.

And so Lincoln on every day sought out the light enabling him to learn the words, all the words he needed and his work demanded…. thus was he up with day’s first light… to finish his work betimes, to snatch some minutes for the words…, then to pass the night and gain some further words by fire light and smokey tallow. Because the words would not be denied… Lincoln was not to be denied. They beckoned. He followed… until he was at last ready to begin, just to begin, his great work… the work that needed all of him… and so every word at his command.

Thus was he summoned from Springfield in Illinois to the greatest city of the Great Republic, New York, where its most renowned and anxious citizens, worthy, substantial, concerned, waited with impatience, condescension, worry and, yes, even hope to hear what a prairie lawyer named Lincoln had to say to them about the great issue of their day and how this great blot upon the Great Republic could be resolved… and their great experiment in governance be purified. And so did Abraham Lincoln rise to speak, at Cooper Union, February 27, 1860.

The most important speech since Washington’s Farewell Address (1796).

These days only specialists are knowledgeable about the Cooper Union speech… but this is wrong, for it gave the Union a new voice, a new leader, and a man fiercely dedicated to the preservation and triumph of the Constitution. Without Cooper Union Lincoln would never have been nominated in 1860, so never would have served, and could not have brought his signal talents to bear on saving the Great Republic. And thus the greatest experiment in human history and affairs might well have come to naught, to the impoverishment and despair of our species.

But Cooper Union did happen… and with every word the nation knew it had found not merely a good and honest man, but a savior… a man fiercely dedicated to truth… fiercely dedicated to working together with even obdurate men who hated and outraged each other… fiercely determined to find the formula to protect and defend the Union… And so he was fierce in his moderation… fierce in his implacable opposition to anyone threatening the great federal Union… fierce in asking all good citizens to step forward and work for the greater good… And such was the power of his fierce message of what must be done, such was the excellence, clarity and reasonableness of his words, that this audience of the great thrilled and cheered him to the very echo.

This single man whose ambition was defined (according to his law partner William H. Herndon) as “a little engine that knew no rest”, was now in place for the uttermost struggle, a struggle for common sense, common purpose, common decency and the validation and acknowledgement of all. He was ready… for he had the ideas, the fortitude, the moral certainty… and, above all, the words he needed, the words that saved the Great Republic and remind us still of what is possible when we have a leader who summons the “better angels of our nature.”

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today. Details at worldprofit.com

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