BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Two of the best books I’ve read over the last year have been Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Own Age, by David S. Reynolds, and Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight.
Both men, Lincoln and Douglass, show that anyone can learn wisdom, gracefulness of expression, and moral courage from salutary books, no matter how humble or, indeed, corny. Even the most plebeian texts imaginable can help us furnish our minds beautifully, as the lives of these two giants show us.
One reason we hail Lincoln as a great democrat is his reputation as a rail-splitter–a frontier working man. But this image had only the tiniest grain of truth to it; he put up one rail fence, in 1830. The idea was seized on by Republican senators for Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860, and it took on a life of its own. Lincoln actually spent nearly all his pre-political working life behind a desk or arguing in front of a court. His roots in frontier culture, however, are of course real. As a boy, he attended country schools for a total of one year, on and off. Frontier schools were dodgy affairs back then; teacher certification was not a thing and many “teachers” were outright frauds. There were few books to be had and no standardized curriculum. Mostly the children just listened and repeated back what they heard.
“Much of the school day,” Reynolds reports, “was devoted to individual and group recitation. The idea behind these ‘blab’ or ‘vocal’ schools was that information could best be imprinted on the memory if spoken aloud–a habit that stuck with Lincoln, who later irritated colleagues in his Springfield law office by constantly reading aloud from newspapers or books.”
It is in Lincoln’s early reading habits, not in his over-hyped reputation for manual labor, that his real roots as a democrat begin to reveal themselves. Not only did he form his mind from the crudest intellectual clay, but even more importantly, he became completely receptive to cultural elements in his environment that were as eclectic as the content of his blab books. “[H]is mind was fed early on by all kinds of sources, high and low, sacred and secular,” Reynolds writes. As an adult Abe would speak one moment like a preacher, the next like a barroom raconteur, full of earthy jokes, then quote Shakespeare.
Among the most formative of Lincoln’s school books were “William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, The Kentucky Preceptor, Noah Webster’s The American Speller, . . . and Lindley Murray’s The English Reader.” Lest we dismiss these eclectic, archly didactic books as merely the stage-setters that opened Lincoln’s mind to finer literature later in life, they actually stayed with him. Lincoln carried ideas and passages from these odd, humble books all his life. He developed a great capacity for memorizing texts from them and invoking them later.
Reynolds writes, “Lessons in Elocution included literary passages such as the soliloquy of Hamlet’s uncle on the murder of his brother (‘Oh! My offense is rank; it smells to heaven’), which Lincoln would spontaneously recite during his presidency.” From Aesop’s Fables, Lincoln took with him the image of bundled sticks, the strength of which he invoked “in a political circular . . . encouraging his fellow Whigs to act in unison rather than separately.”
These are just two examples of the scattershot collection of texts that shaped Lincoln’s mind. What mattered about the passages he memorized was not always their inherent greatness. Some were homely and modest, some scandalous, some preachy, and many–about spelling or grammar–destined to be outdated. But in all they reflected an amalgam of American impulses and ideas, a bounty of differing viewpoints that seemed in a way to embody the “multitudes” that captivated Walt Whitman.
The lessons Lincoln took from his school books were simple but powerful. The first was the importance of clarity. Though we recall the language of 19th century as florid and meandering (just try getting through the longeurs of Melville or Hawthorne), Lincoln led Americans into a new linguistic paradigm of brevity and precision. Say exactly what you mean, was the new injunction. But Lincoln also managed to cultivate a sense of style that gave his words literary power and moral weight. Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address, in only three minutes–a mere ten sentences that defined a whole new model of political language. To this day we still believe that anyone with something to say should be as clear and brief as possible, but without sacrificing beauty or style.
Lincoln also learned from the blab schools and quotation books that texts are intrinsically worth committing to memory. He didn’t know he would become president when he started memorizing all those lines; they just spoke to him. We can learn from Lincoln that this remains a habit worth emulating. If a passage of a poem, essay, play, or novel speaks to us, we can and should carry that passage with us. Words anchor us to the world, with all its wonders and trials. When we have nothing else, they are there to guide us, as they did Lincoln, during the gravest tests of human wisdom and courage.
Ringing literary allusions do not merely reflect our inner selves, though; they connect us to others. This was a third lesson Lincoln learned from his school books. A good communicator must know his audience if he wants to relate to them. It is a lesson tailor-made for a politician, but it it applies to the rest of us too. One of the things we say about experts and academics when they talk is that they are “off in their own world.” How true! They only seem to relate to their own kind. Lincoln’s school book readings taught him there are all kinds of people in the world, and to be fully human–especially in a democratic society–one must understand them and empathize with them. This starts with speaking their languages.
It was in the winter of 1830 that young Abraham Lincoln discovered a school book called The Columbian Orator. Like other school books already mentioned, it was a hodgepodge, a collection of texts laid out in no particular order but with the ring of nobility to them. As its name implied, The Columbian Orator was designed to teach effective public speaking. The winter after Lincoln began reading his copy of the book on the Illinois prairie, the young Fredrick Bailey, 900 miles to the east, in Baltimore, would acquire his.
We know Bailey today by the name he took after escaping slavery–Frederick Douglass. In a a way that mirrors the young Abraham Lincoln’s personal history, Bailey-Douglass was also the product, pedagogically speaking, of whatever school books were to be found in his immediate environment. David W. Blight recalls in Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, that young Bailey acquired his copy of The Columbian Orator from Irish friends of his who were carrying their school books with them when they would see young Frederick on the streets of Baltimore.
As it turned out, The Columbian Orator did have a guiding theme, chosen by its editor, Caleb Bingham, but it would have been hard to tease it out of its haphazard contents. Blight writes of Bigham’s book,
[Its] eighty-four entries were organized without regard for chronology or topic; such a lack of system was a pedagogical theory of the time designed to hold student interest. It held Frederick Bailey in rapt attention. The selections included prose, verse, plays, and especially political speeches by famous orators from antiquity and the Enlightenment. Cato, Cicero, Demosthenes, Socrates, John Milton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, William Pitt, Napoleon, Charles James Fox, and Daniel O’Connell . . . all appear at least once, and some several times. Most of the pieces address themes of nationalism, individual liberty, religious faith, or the value of education.
Taken on the whole, the book was, if the term is not too disparaging, a ragbag. I mean this word in the same way Orwell did when he used it to describe a genius no less than Shakespeare. What Orwell meant, and what I mean, is that a compelling voice–like the one in The Columbian Orator–can impart great wisdom even if it fails to evoke systematic understanding, minute design, or even erudition. It is in the powerful expression of an idea that the reader (or hearer) can see a life-changing truth as in a flash of lightning or hear a higher call to duty as in a clarion note. It’s the voice that matters.
As Frederick Bailey recited the words of The Columbian Orator to himself, essentially undergoing the same rote exercise in elocution and memorization that Abraham Lincoln did in the frontier schools of Illinois, those words took shape and caught fire. This sort of awakening was exactly what the passages in The Orator were meant to produce. Bingham, the collection’s editor, was a Dartmouth-educated abolitionist. He had chosen the texts for the Orator to showcase the central, founding idea of America–that each individual is sovereign and may not be owned or ruled over by others. Without saying the words “slavery” or “abolition,” Bingham assembled The Columbian Orator to teach the reader that slavery was un-American and indeed was at war with the liberal arc of history. In its pages, American school children, Blight tells us, “would have repeatedly encountered irresistible words such as ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘tyranny,’ and the ‘rights of man.'” It was “a vocabulary of liberation.”
All throughout his life, Douglass would refer to his copy of The Columbian Orator as his “rich treasure” and “noble acquisition.” He carried it with him when he escaped slavery. The Orator‘s promotion of American ideas poured “floods of light,” Douglass recalled, “on the nature and character of slavery, . . . penetrat[ing] the secret of all slavery and oppression.” Put simply, America would not have in its cultural possession one of its greatest books, Douglass’s epochal autobiography My Life as a Slave, without young Frederick Bailey’s chance acquisition of The Columbian Orator, that stiff, eclectic, grandstanding collection of liberal ideas. One of our great prophets might not have found his voice. And the chorus that eventually called for America to hold true to its ideal of freedom would have lacked its most plangent, powerful tones.