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A Most Democratic Voice : ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Speeches and Writings Volume I, 1832-1858 Volume II, 1859-1865 edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (The Library of America: $47; 787 pp.)

September 24, 1989|Hans L. Trefousse | Trefousse, Distinguished Professor of History at Brooklyn College, is the author of several books about the Civil War and Reconstruction, the latest of which is a biography of Andrew Johnson. and

For the last several years, the Library of America has specialized in the publication of attractive editions of American classics. Modeled after similar ventures in Europe, these publications have provided us with new selections from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O'Connor and others. Now we also have a new two-volume Library of America edition of the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln.

It is fortunate that this set is available, and doubly fortunate that it has been edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, one of our most distinguished Lincoln scholars. A Pulitzer Prize-winning long-time professor of history at Stanford University, Fehrenbacher brings to his subject exactly the right background and knowledge, and he has given us a splendid new set of Lincoln's writings and speeches.

Conveniently arranged in chronological order, Volume I covers Lincoln's Illinois career, Volume II his presidency and the events leading up to it. A particularly useful part of the collection is the author's chronology of his subject's life appended to the text. Supplemented by meticulous notes explaining references in the documents, the chronology, in conjunction with the speeches and writings, can give the reader a very thorough insight into the problems faced by the Great Emancipator.

Of course this is not the only selection of the works of our 16th President. The majestic eight-volume edition by Roy P. Basler with its supplement, containing everything discovered up to 1974, will remain the principal source for scholars. Too voluminous for general use, this collection has long stood side by side with such shorter editions as those by Paul M. Angle and Earl S. Miers, as well as Basler's own abridgement. But these works were published more than 30 years ago, thus lacking anything uncovered since. The current edition, which contains old as well as new material, will therefore serve a useful purpose.

While primarily based on the eight-volume collection, the present text also includes several additions to the Lincoln papers. Two letters in 1849 to the secretary of the interior concerning patronage are good examples, as are two written in 1856 and 1857 about local elections and a law case. All the Lincoln-Douglas debates are included, as well as Lincoln's autobiography and the more important presidential proclamations.

It may well be asked what is missing. To reduce eight volumes to two is no easy task, and Prof. Fehrenbacher has generally succeeded in doing so. He has wisely omitted routine congratulations to foreign heads of state, numerous endorsements and other less important communications. In some cases, he has deleted speeches already represented by others delivered in the course of the same trip, and he has been compelled to leave out portions of the correspondence received by Lincoln and included in Basler's work.

More questionable is the omission of such controversial material as the famous letter to Gen. James S. Wadsworth, written sometime in 1864, in which the President endorsed black suffrage. To be sure, the authenticity of portions of this correspondence has been questioned, but the first paragraph is presumably genuine and might have been reproduced. It is also unfortunate that the letter concerning Reconstruction, allegedly written by Lincoln on the last day of his life to Gen. James H. Van Alen, has been left out, possibly because the original has never been found. In addition, perhaps some of the President's emendations upon his detestation of slavery, such as the Reply to the New York Workingmen on March 21, 1864, and the speech to an Indiana regiment on March 17, 1865, should have been included, but some deletions are obviously necessary in a work of this type.

Even a cursory perusal of the documents, many of them well known, serves to rekindle admiration for the Civil War President. His mastery of the English language makes his speeches well worth rereading. Who else could express as well as he the ideal of democracy for which he believed the war was being fought? It was the principle of "giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time . . . the promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." This was the "government of the people, by the people, for the people" that he extolled.

Although his full commitment to antislavery has been questioned, no one reading his writings can have the slightest doubt about his hatred for human bondage. From the day in 1837 when he was one of two members of the Illinois legislature to protest that the institution of slavery was "founded on both injustice and bad policy," to the time in 1864 when he wrote unequivocally to the Kentucky editor Albert J. Hodges that he was "naturally anti-slavery," he never wavered in his belief in freedom. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," he insisted.

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