The book was about what I expected: a short crash course on Lincoln the orator and the issues of the day. Being strictly text, and abridged at that, it is neither instructional for the beginner, nor exhaustive for the researcher. Book 4 of 6 of the Penguin Civic Classics collection, it is a good read for the layman who wants to go beyond the basics taught in grade school. Interestingly, some of his lesser known speeches moved me far more than his famous ones. My favorite was his Oct 16, 1854 “Speech at Peoria, Ill,” about the effective repeal of the Missouri Compromise via the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It is a sharp, clear explication of the difference in policy between the abolishment of slavery and its containment. Obviously, we know how the story ends, but transport yourself to the 1850s, when the house of cards was just beginning to fall and war loomed over the minds of Americans. His policies represented the death throes of compromise and the last ditch effort to preserve an “agree to disagree” national policy on slavery. He was the last famous public figure to tread this line before throwing up his hands and throwing his lot in with one side or the other.
Lincoln, ever the “Good Whig,” presents arguments with mathematical precision, reflected in such simple quotes as “Either one or the other is wrong, or perhaps both a little, but both cannot be right.” There are some quotes that seem lofty by modern standards, and others that seem downright repugnant. What stands out in his prose is his scientific obsession with proper wording and presentation. It gives the impression of an insomniac kept up all night drafting and re-drafting tomorrow’s speeches, questioning the tiniest errant connotation. I believe his example of gentlemanly rationality is one all can follow in public discourse.