Lincoln Speaks

Books --

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.

WHY not omit the most dubious quotations altogether? Because, the Fehrenbachers answer, the legendary Lincoln has had almost as powerful an influence on American culture as the historical Lincoln. Moreover, "credibility is so difficult to gauge that learned opinions would differ about which ones to exclude." All honest historians would echo this confession of fallibility. But they would also probably agree with nearly all the editors' E grades. No serious scholar, for example, accepts the authenticity of statements attributed to Lincoln by the renegade Catholic priest Charles Chiniquy to the effect that the Jesuits caused the Civil War and were plotting his (Lincoln's) assassination. Nor would anyone challenge the E assigned to Nettie Maynard, a spiritualist who quoted Lincoln, saying he had taken part in her séances.

The greatest potential for disagreement lies in the D rankings. Consider, for example, Lincoln's reported remark to a delegation of congressmen who urged the dismissal of General Ulysses S. Grant because of his alleged drinking. Lincoln supposedly asked them what brand of whiskey Grant drank, so that he could send some to his other generals. Four quotations in the Fehrenbachers' compilation deal with this matter. The editors assign Ds to both auditors who quoted Lincoln as having made such a remark, and give a C to one auditor and a D to the other who quoted Lincoln as denying that he had done so. But a plausible interpretation of these denials is that Lincoln disclaimed originality in making this remark, which had been said about other generals in earlier wars. All four quotations were recorded long after the fact, and there seems to be no inherent reason to consider any of the auditors more trustworthy than the others. Grant's principal military biographer, Bruce Catton, accepted the story because he could "see no good reason for doubting its authenticity."

Another example of a debatable D concerns a Lincoln statement about black soldiers during a presidential visit to the Petersburg front in June of 1864, shortly after black brigades had captured part of the Confederate defenses. Horace Porter, an officer on Grant's staff, quoted Lincoln as telling Grant on this occasion, "I was opposed on nearly every side when I first favored the raising of colored regiments, but they have proved their efficiency, and I am glad they have kept pace with the white troops in the recent assaults." The Fehrenbachers assign this statement a D because "many northerners were ahead of Lincoln in favoring the enlistment of blacks, and it would have been absurd to claim otherwise." But does this quotation show Lincoln claiming otherwise? Surely not. He is quoted as saying that he was opposed on nearly every side when he first committed himself to recruiting black regiments. It is true that black leaders and radical Republicans urged such a policy for months before Lincoln endorsed it, at the beginning of 1863. But the policy did provoke a storm of controversy and opposition when he adopted it. "Nearly every side" overstates the case, to be sure, but Lincoln may well have remembered it that way more than a year later, and the words that Porter attributed to him have the ring of plausibility.

I do not wish to give the impression, however, that I quarrel with most of the Fehrenbachers' D grades; the contrary is true. And they would be the first to acknowledge that the question of authenticity for D quotations leaves much room for debate. In any event, most quotations are graded C, a neutral evaluation that nevertheless carries a warning sign: because they were recorded well after their supposed utterance, sometimes decades later, they must be viewed with due regard to the fallibility of memory and the temptation of the writer to magnify his nearness to the great man. Rankings of A and B are relatively rare, most of them concentrated in the diaries of Lincoln's friend the Illinois senator Orville Browning; of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who had frequent access to the President; and of John Hay. Lincoln's other private secretary, John Nicolay, also earns several As and Bs for his contemporary memoranda of conversations with Lincoln.

IF a biographer or a historian could confine his research to the Collected Works plus recollected quotations ranked A and B, he would have few worries about the reliability of evidence. But he would also leave large gaps in the Lincoln story, both in Lincoln's early life and in his presidential years. On many significant matters those two sources are virtually silent.

Consider two of the most important decisions of Lincoln's presidency. During the secession crisis of early 1861 Lincoln evidently twice offered to withdraw troops from Fort Sumter in return for a pledge by Virginians to adjourn their convention without seceding. "A state for a fort is no bad business" is the way one contemporary quoted Lincoln. Not a word appears in the Collected Works on this matter. Controversy surrounds the questions whether Lincoln did in fact make such an offer and, if so, its precise terms. No fewer than seven men -- including Hay, in a conversation with Lincoln six months later -- quoted the President directly or indirectly on the issue. Six of them report that an offer was made, yet only Hay's statement earns a B; two others get Cs and three get Ds, while the man, a Virginian, who denied that Lincoln made such an offer also earns a D. The matter remains unresolved, but the weight of evidence and of the Fehrenbachers' careful commentary indicates that Lincoln probably made such an offer and that the Virginians who received it had neither the power nor the will to act on it. So the troops remained in Fort Sumter, Confederate guns fired on them, and the war came.

Lincoln's Vice President during his first term was Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine. The convention that renominated Lincoln in 1864 dumped Hamlin in favor of Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Unionist and War Democrat who moderate Republicans thought would strengthen the ticket by reaching out to the two constituencies he represented. This action had profound and tragic consequences for postwar Reconstruction, as the Fehrenbachers write: when Lincoln was assassinated, ten months later, "a southern Democrat of proslavery background, rather than a New England Republican with radical leanings," became President.

Who was responsible for the decision to replace Hamlin with Johnson? The only references in the Collected Works are a letter from Hay to Nicolay stating that Lincoln "wishes not to interfere in the [vice- presidential] nomination even by a confidential suggestion" and Lincoln's own written statement: "Wish not to interfere about V. P. . . . Convention must judge for itself." This would seem to be conclusive. But few modern historians accept Lincoln's disavowal at face value. Michael F. Holt, for example, writing in Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition, asserts flatly that Lincoln "engineered the dumping of Hannibal Hamlin and the selection of the Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson." The evidence for this assertion consists of later recollections by Alexander McClure, a Pennsylvania politician, and by Lincoln's friend and self-appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. In the 1890s both men claimed to have worked with Lincoln in behind-the-scenes maneuvers to get the convention to nominate Johnson. The Fehrenbachers are not convinced. They give McClure's and Lamon's testimony two Es and a D. They have persuaded this reviewer, at least, that Lincoln meant what he said about not interfering in the convention's choice.

The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln is replete with such careful and scholarly judgments. The book can be used in several ways. Some readers may want to begin at the beginning and read through the alphabetical list of auditors who quoted Lincoln, from William A. Aiken to Charles S. Zane. But such readers are likely to be rare, because this book is primarily a reference work. Most will go first to the comprehensive index for references to subjects in which they are interested, from Abolitionism to Whigs, or for Lincoln's quoted statements on everything from God and the Bible to George McClellan and the Democrats. On slavery, emancipation, and blacks there are at least 200 index references to Lincoln quotations.

This is also a book for browsing. Open it to any page and you are likely to find something of interest, perhaps with a cross-reference to another quotation on the subject, which will lead in turn to yet others, in a serendipitous process. Or perhaps a reader is interested in how a particular individual quoted (or misquoted) Lincoln for example, his law partner William H. Herndon, the source for most of what we know or think we know about Lincoln's early life, for whom there are sixty-eight entries chock-full of insights on Herndon's sometimes doubtful reliability. In whatever way readers use this unique book, the majority of them will agree that it is one of the most valuable Lincoln studies to have appeared in many years.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; Lincoln Speaks; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 119 - 124.