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A deeply human Abraham Lincoln
on November 29, 2017
There are a lot of biographies of Lincoln and many are very good. I am not certain but this biography by Ronald White seems unique in two ways. One is the emphasis on Lincoln’s personal writings to himself. I had not known of Lincoln’s tendency all his adult life of writing brutally honest notes to himself. I found these deeply humanizing, whether it be Lincoln’s real thoughts about himself in his adult years or his personal thoughts about slavery. These self-reflective, highly personal notes let the reader get to know Lincoln and not just the mythic image. Americans accept as a sort of cultural doctrine how great Lincoln was. These personal notes, never intended for publication, display the heart and mind of the man and they showed me what “great” means not just for a president but for a human being. Brilliant, self-reflective, deeply honest – this was our 16th president.
The other unique thing White does in this book, especially in the second half, is to parse out how Lincoln developed some of his most famous speeches. White shows how Lincoln used English – the choice of words, the rhetorical and stylistic structures – to craft the final speech. These structural elements show why so many of Lincoln’s speeches are both simple to understand and at the same time highly memorable. Lincoln would take a draft, perhaps work it through with Seward, and then often redo it in a way that improved its presentation enormously. What is worth noting, especially in today’s world, is that these stylistic and grammatical elements were not just rhetorical devices but what Lincoln actually thought and felt put in a way that moved his listeners. It was a creative fusion of honesty and public presentation.
We desperately need to remember the person of Abraham Lincoln today. This excellent biography does Lincoln justice and is a lesson to us of what true leadership and the best of humanity can be in the midst of a terrible crisis on American history.