Lincoln’s Collected Works – Vol. I (Part 1)

10 08 2009

Some thoughts on Volume I of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:

First, let me say that projects like this are immeasurably more useful than selected works.  Selected works are selected for a reason, by a person or persons, and therefore reflect any prejudices or agendas of the selector/selectors.   Collected works projects typically strive to present all documents.  Also, the editors of Lincoln’s Collected Works used a very light hand in annotation, unlike editors of many selected works, which are often polluted with commentary – even to the point of speculating what the author really meant.

Edited by Roy Bassler, The Collected Works was begun in 1945 and published in 1953, with two subsequent supplemental volumes.  It was the product of the Abraham Lincoln Association and had an editorial advisory board of Lincoln scholars Paul Angle, J. G. Randall and Benjamin P. Thomas.  The task was that of  “collecting, cataloging, reducing to typescript, and annotating each discoverable writing or speech of Abraham Lincoln.”    These include just about everything that could be found that was written in Lincoln’s hand or otherwise documented to have been authored by Lincoln in whole or in part, signed by him, or signed for him by his authority, with the exception of: law cases and associated documents; items Lincoln merely copied in his own hand; acts of Congress; commissions; authorizations; treaties; appointments; etc…, unless there was some special significance to the document.

OK, so, what did I run across in Volume I that caught my attention for whatever reason, and prompted me to attach a (this time) purple Post-It note?  Please keep in mind that I don’t consider myself a Lincoln expert, so if you have any opinion on these notes, feel free to comment.  But keep any comments on current events in your fingers and off the keyboard.  Drawing parallels between historic and current events is a parlor trick, not a talent.

Jan. 11, 1837 – Speech in the Illinois Legislature Concerning the State Bank (pp 65-66) – “I make the assertion boldly, and without fear of contradiction, that no man, who does not hold an office, or does not aspire to one,  has ever found any fault of the Bank.  It has doubled the prices of the products of their farms, and filled their pockets with a sound circulating medium, and they are all well pleased with its operations.  No, Sir, it is the politician who is the first to sound the alarm, (which, by the way, is a false one.)  It is he, [who,] by these unholy means, is endeavoring to blow up a storm that he may ride upon and direct.  It is he, and he alone, that here proposes to spend thousands of the people’s public treasure, for no other advantage to them, than to make valueless in their pockets the reward for their industry.  Mr. Chairman, this movement is exclusively the work of politicians; a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them, are, taken as a mass, at least on long step removed from honest men.  I say this with the greater freedom because, being a politician myself, none can regard it as personal.”

Apr. 1, 1838 – Letter to Mrs. Orville H. Browning (pp 117-119) – This letter, in which Lincoln describes the circumstances surrounding his engagement to Mary Owens, is a joy.  I’d seen snippets of it before, but never read the whole thing.  Lincoln had not seen Miss Owens in about three years, “…and although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her.  I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an ‘old maid’, and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appellation; but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from weathered features, for her skin was too full of fat, to permit its contracting into wrinkles; but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head, that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirtyfive or forty years; and, in short, I was not all pleased with her.”  Well, it turns out that Miss Owens let Lincoln out of his scrape, much to his chagrin.  Lincoln then scooped Groucho Marx by about 100 years: “I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying; and for this reason; I can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-head enough to have me.”

Dec. 26, 1839 – In this very, very long Speech on the Sub-Treasury (pp 178-179), Lincoln argued to the legislature in favor of the National Bank over the administration’s Sub-Treasury system for transferring and disbursing the revenues of the nation.  At the close, it seems Lincoln was consciously experimenting with writing and delivering a stirring, patriotic rouser.  In addition to establishing Lincoln as the “King of Commas”, I think it’s a bit over the top, and ultimately leaves an impression of insincerity.  “Mr. Lamborn averts to the late elections in the States, and from their results, confidently predicts, that every State in the Union will vote for Mr. Van Buren in the next Presidential election.  Address that argument to cowards and to knaves; with the free and the brave it will effect nothing.  It may be true, if it must, let it.  Many free countries have lost their liberties; and ours may lose hers; but if she shall, let it be my proudest plume, not that I was the last to desert, but that I never deserted her.  I know that the great volcano at Washington, aroused and directed by the evil spirit that reigns there, is belching forth the lava of political corruption, in a current broad and deep, which is sweeping with frightful velocity over the whole length and breadth of the land, bidding fair to leave unscathed no green spot or living thing, while on its bosom are riding like demons on the waves of Hell, the imps of that evil spirit, and fiendishly taunting all those who resist its destroying course, with the hopelessness of their effort; and knowing this, I cannot deny that all may be swept away.  Broken by it, I, too, may be; bow to it I never will.  The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me.  If I ever feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not wholly unworthy of its Almighty Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country, deserted by all the world beside, and I standing up boldly and alone and hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors.  Here, without contemplating consequences, before High Heaven, and in the face of the world, I swear eternal fidelity to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of my life, my liberty and my love.  And who, that thinks with me, will not fearlessly adopt the oath I take.  Let none faulter, who thinks he is right, and we may succeed.  But, if after all, we shall fail, be it so.  We still shall have the proud consolation of saying to our consciences, and to the departed shade of our country’s freedom, that the cause approved of our judgment, and adored of our hearts, in disaster, in chains, in torture, in death, WE NEVER faultered in defending.”

As this is taking longer than I thought, and I want to stick to the People Magazine theory of article length, I’ll have another post (at least) with more from Volume I later this week.








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