Lincoln Speaks

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Lincoln Speaks



IN 1984 I delivered a paper at a conference on Abraham Lincoln and the American political tradition. This occasion was my first public foray into the perilous arena of Lincoln scholarship, and I was a bit apprehensive. My presentation followed a paper by Don E. Fehrenbacher, one of the foremost living Lincoln scholars, titled "The Words of Lincoln." Fehrenbacher warned would-be quoters of Lincoln to beware of the vast apocrypha attributed to that most-quoted figure in all of American history. He distinguished between "the canon" -- the ten-volume Collected Works,consisting of Lincoln's letters and speeches, and memoranda that he wrote himself or that were transcribed on the spot by newspaper "phonographers" (stenographers) -- and remarks supposedly uttered by Lincoln in the presence of auditors who wrote them down later. Many of these recollected words of Lincoln were undoubtedly genuine, in their gist if not verbatim, but others were questionable at best and counterfeit at worst. The words of Lincoln as recollected by others are a "rich resource," Fehrenbacher said, but to use this resource "is to walk on treacherous ground."
As I listened to this paper, I grew increasingly nervous. During the ten-minute break between Fehrenbacher's presentation and mine I feverishly searched my footnote citations to determine whether my quotations from Lincoln met Fehrenbacher's rigorous standards of authenticity. Soon I sighed with relief: nearly all were from the canon, and the two exceptions were from the diary of John Hay, President Lincoln's private secretary -- which Fehrenbacher gave the highest grade of veracity, because Hay wrote down Lincoln's words shortly after his conversations with the President.

The rewards as well as the perils of recollected utterance are greater with respect to Lincoln than respecting any other person in our history. Without reliance on such material we would know very little about his early life or about the decision-making behind some of his most important political and presidential actions. Yet owing to Lincoln's martyrdom and his near-canonization as savior of the Union and liberator of the slaves, a mythical aura of words and deeds surrounds him as it does no other American.

So how does the student of Lincoln separate the gold from the dross? Fehrenbacher conceded that "there is no simple formula for judging the authenticity of recollected utterances." The historian "must call upon his professional experience, his knowledge of the particular historical context, and his common sense to make a judgment of probability." That is all very well for the seasoned historian, who is trained in critical evaluation of sources. But what of the novice, the journalist, the Rotary Club speaker, the politician, who wants to quote Lincoln? "What we need, and may never have," Fehrenbacher said in 1984, "is a systematic, critically evaluative compilation of all the utterances, whether quoted or merely summarized, that have been attributed to Lincoln in contemporary and recollective primary sources."

No one was better qualified than Fehrenbacher himself to put together such a compilation. So with his wife, Virginia, he set out to do so. Twelve years later the Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln is the splendid result. The Fehrenbachers have sifted through countless recollective writings in order to document, classify, and evaluate some 1,900 quotations of Lincoln by more than 500 people. This awesome task was well worth the effort, for we now have a comprehensive and trustworthy guide of incalculable value to all students of Lincoln.

A few familiar quotations are missing. When Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, visited Lincoln at the White House in November of 1862, reportedly the President greeted her as "the little woman who made this great war." Many historians and biographers of both Lincoln and Stowe have quoted these words, but because their only source was "unverified [Stowe] family tradition," the Fehrenbachers do not include the phrase. Nor do they include many other quotations that can be "vaguely linked" to Lincoln only by "anonymous narrative, contemporary gossip, family tradition, and other tenuous connections." The criteria for inclusion require that quotations be "traceable to named auditors" -- that is, "persons claiming to have heard the quoted words directly from Lincoln." The editors make exceptions to this rule, however. Forty-seven quotations from contemporary anonymous newspaper correspondents are included, as are numerous secondhand quotations: X quoting Y who quoted Lincoln.

The Fehrenbachers assign each quotation a letter grade as a guide to its authenticity. Most direct quotations recorded within days of their utterance earn an A; similar indirect quotations (summaries or paraphrases of Lincoln's words) earn a B. Most direct or indirect quotations written down weeks or years later earn a C. These grades, the editors write, are "classificatory" but obviously have "evaluative implications." Common sense, along with scholarly research on memory, tells us that observations or quotations recorded soon after the fact are more reliable than those filtered through the haze of memory. Thus quotations assigned an A or a B are as a general rule more authentic than those given a C.

There are a good many exceptions, however, and some contemporary as well as many later quotations earn a D or an E owing to their implausibility, the known or suspected unreliability of the recorder, factual errors or inconsistencies in the quotation or its context, or the secondhand nature of the quotation. A quotation "about whose authenticity there is more than average doubt" gets a D; a quotation "that is probably not authentic" earns an E. Like a professor who gives a student a low grade, the Fehrenbachers accompany most Ds and Es with brief explanations of their reasons for assigning them. These evaluations offer a trenchant cram course in the perils and pitfalls of Lincoln scholarship.

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