three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
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The Presidency and the Power of Words

A-Lincoln’s SwordIn this meticulous study of the Civil War president’s most admired and renowned writings, distinguished Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson allows readers rare insight into Lincoln’s process of composition. Arguing that Lincoln’s most powerful weapon during the war was his gift of persuasion, Wilson scrutinizes the painstaking creation of such documents and speeches as the Farewell Address to Springfield, the First Inaugural Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. By comparing Lincoln’s copious drafts and revisions to his final manuscripts, Lincoln’s Sword also reveals how this self-educated president purposefully and tirelessly honed his writing skills to develop a spare, forceful style that would most effectively communicate with and persuade the public.
Knopf. 343 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1400040396

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"What a delight, what a wonder . … For a few hours your faith will be restored in democracy and politics." Bob Blaisdell

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Douglas L. Wilson … restores the humanity behind the famous face. … The story is all the more interesting because Lincoln took steps to hide his labor." Ted Widmer

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Wilson’s book is a rare two-for-one in the U.S. history field, because it will appeal to students of Lincoln as well as to serious writers." Linda Wheeler

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Wilson makes us linger over Lincoln’s words, driving home his main point that Lincoln was perhaps above all things a careful writer. … With dozens of photographs of pasted drafts and crossed-out corrections, Wilson reveals a distinctive 19th-century way of making, revising, and publishing speeches." David Waldstreicher

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Wilson] injects himself into the president’s thought process, to enlightening if debatable effect. … While Wilson’s approach is often textbook tedious, there are enough anecdotes and interesting asides to keep academic and casual reader alike entertained." Allan Walton

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lincoln’s Sword will not only cause readers to see Lincoln in fresh ways, but they will discover how disciplined exactness can sharpen their own writing—and rewriting." Myron A. Marty

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"While Lincoln’s Sword provides some glittering nuggets of insight, much of it retraces familiar ground. … The most engaging portions of this book deal with Lincoln’s habits of composition and the central place that writing played in his life." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Douglas L. Wilson, codirector of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and 1999 Lincoln Prize winner for Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, has again won the Lincoln Prize for Lincoln’s Sword. Wilson says the book resulted from his work transcribing Lincoln’s most famous writings for the Library of Congress, where he was struck by Lincoln’s literary craftsmanship and penchant for revision. While a few reviewers criticize Wilson’s academic prose style and reiteration of Lincoln material (he breaks no new ground), most admire his scholarship and inside look at Lincoln’s writing process and find the book an insightful and revelatory study of our 16th president.

Cited by the Critics

Lincoln at Gettysburg The Words That Remade America | Garry Wills (1992): Award Star Pulitzer Prize. Wills places Lincoln’s famous—and revolutionary—speech in the context of the early Greeks, 19th-century Transcendentalism, and the U.S. Constitution.

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech The Second Inaugural | Ronald C. White Jr. (2002): White explores the meaning and context of Lincoln’s short but powerful inaugural address of 1865.