Some books are on my list not because they constitute great literature but because they are about great themes. And no doubt Ronald C. White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech belongs in this category of less-than-great books about great matters. Lincoln went to his second inauguration riding a tidal wave of victories secured by Grant and Sherman; the war that both sides thought would last only a few days was, after four bitter years, at last truly only days from ending. As White explains, while in these circumstances virtually everyone expected a speech full of self-congratulating celebration and practical plans for Reconstruction, what they heard instead was a confession of national guilt and that rarest of acknowledgments: that God is not a partisan of the victorious. Where Lincoln's second greatest speech situated the events of a great battle in the greater context of the meaning of our country and its example to the globe, the Second Inaugural situated the meaning of our country in the cosmically greater context of the inscrutable will of God. Great matters indeed.
With no malice intended, I offer examples of some of the problems with the mechanics and rhetoric of this book. First, White often uses the linking verb to build the most awkward constructions. He writes, for example, "A vexing question was whether a war begun to preserve the Union could be transformed into a war to end slavery." Having found an excellent verb, he hid it in a participle and built a clunky sentence around the verb was. Much better to say, "The question whether a war . . . could be transformed . . . vexed Lincoln." A little confused about both his grammar and Lincoln's, White calls "with malice toward none" an imperative. Often these slightly awkward, slightly off-center sentences just miss adding up to solid paragraphs, as well, and a larger thread usually occupies no more than two or three of these paragraphs before a horizontal line introduces another chunky idea.
Despite these weakness, though, White makes many excellent points and leads the reader through a deeply emotional, intellectual, and spiritual encounter with these profound words. The first half of the speech, always perfunctory to me before, took on new depth as White located hidden alliteration and assonance and pointed out Lincoln's use of generic terms to keep a reasoned tone, most notably "one party" where he could have said "rebels" or "traitors." But White's analysis of this early portion helped even more where he explained Lincoln's surprisingly frequent use of the passive voice as a way to prepare his point that the human participants of the war were not in fact the effective agents of its course. Capping this line of reasoning, White observes that with the short blunt sentence "And the war came," war changes its role as a grammatical object earlier in the speech to that of grammatical subject, again reflecting and teaching Lincoln's view that people did not control events.
As good as the early analysis is, the book really takes fire in its examination of the second half of the speech. Where Lincoln says that participants on both sides read the same Bible, White stops to explore the place of the Bible in American society at that time and to tell some fascinating stories about how Bibles reached the soldiers, especially those in the blockaded Confederacy, where no publishers of Bibles existed. White also taught me some things about prominent theological issues at the time -- most importantly that no interested person then would mistake belief in God's sovereignty with a philosophy of determinism or fatalism, a mistake commonly made in present-day accounts of Lincoln -- and about Lincoln's relationships and discussions with two very interesting, well-read pastors. And White showed me a totally new angle on the phrase "American Slavery." Where before I had thought that Lincoln used the adjective "American" to distinguish the institution from other kinds of slavery in history, White showed that Lincoln used "American" rather than "Southern" to declare that the blame for the institution rested on the shoulders of everyone in the country, north and south. In this Second Inaugural Address, which White near the end of his book calls a sermon, Lincoln points the people of the United States to God as the only explanation for events, as the only judge of America's sin, and as the only possible ground for healing. In White's best sentence, he says, "Instead of rallying his supporters, in the name of God, to support the war, he asked his listeners, quietly, to imitate the ways of God."
Lincoln's words themselves I would consider great literature. You can read the entire speech in about three minutes at this site. Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals offers a moving, enlightening, entertaining -- and impeccably written -- parallel biography of Lincoln and his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860: Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and William Seward. My favorite book about Lincoln is the little-known Lincoln's Melancholy, written by Joshua Shenk and given to me by the most perceptively kind student I've ever had; I'm not sure how she knew I would love it, but she did. I agree with White that the most recent biography of Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, disappoints in its insistence that throughout his life Lincoln ultimately remained passive in the face of forces beyond his control. As much as Lincoln and the Civil War interest me, I have never read even part of Sandburg's monumental biography. Sandburg made a one-volume condensation; I should put it and the biographies by Oates and Thomas on my reading list -- for the third decade.