Saturday, October 28, 2023

Broken Eggs

by Abraham Lincoln. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

President Abraham Lincoln's deletion of one sentence from a draft of one of his letters intended for publication in a newspaper might not warrant much attention in the long view of history. But in the book Lincoln's Sword, Douglas L. Wilson shows the significance of such edits and other word choices that a legendary President made to navigate difficult times. 

Wilson compares drafts of Lincoln's speeches, public statements, letters, or other documents with his historian's eye. He provides context for comparing documents, by making connection also with recollections in primary sources, such as diaries and reports of Lincoln's colleagues, friends, family, and adversaries. Wilson interprets both why Lincoln made a variety of language choices and how these impacted decisions and events. In sum, the book illuminates Lincoln's extraordinary use of words to help unify the United States, at a seriously partisan period in the nation's history.

One example occurred in late August 1862, at an "anguished period" in Lincoln's administration, when he replied to criticism by a formidable adversary, Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune (Wilson, pp. 148-161). This was just prior to Lincoln's landmark Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863. He presented his reply to Greely as a public letter published in the competing newspaper National Intelligencer. Wilson notes that a direct rebuke of a formidable critic in the form of a public letter in a newspaper was an unusual step for a president. 

The penultimate draft of his letter to the newspaper included the figurative sentence, "Broken eggs can never be mended, and the longer the breaking proceeds the more will be broken." Prior to publication though, at the suggestion of the newspaper editors that this sentence seemed "somewhat exceptionable on rhetorical grounds, in a paper of such dignity," Lincoln agreed to its deletion, "with some reluctance"even though he had previously expressed the sentiment in private correspondence and would do so again later  (Wilson, p. 155). 

What the newspaper editors objected to then, we might welcome today as enduring wisdom and homely truth. Applied to our own time, the sentence offers perspective on some major troubles, like the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, or domestic gun violence, or the thuggery of pseudo-populists in the United States and elsewhere.

By examining drafts of Lincoln's discourse, Wilson shows the power that emerges from his practice of writing as rewriting. A leading analyst of rhetorical style indicates the value of exploring "words and phrases crossed out and written over, substitutions or additions careted in, circled text removed to another position" (Fahnestock). Throughout Wilson's book, he shows how Lincoln chose words carefully, to rhetorically negotiate closeness with his audience in relation to a question or a problem (Turnbull).

A law clerk...claimed that Lincoln told him, "I write by ear. When I have got my thoughts on paper, I read it aloud, and if it sounds all right I just let it pass" (Wilson, p. 90).

Lincoln preferred to use many commaspossibly, to reflect the pauses of where he took a breath when reading aloud. In the opinion of the Government Printer, Lincoln used too many commas. A continuing routine of back and forth editing was common between the two, as Lincoln kept reinserting (usually, not quite as many as his original) commas in galley proofs.

He would also stay firm on a word not considered at the time to be dignified, when the word expressed precisely his idea. Lincoln reportedly asserted on one occasion, "The time will never come in this country when the people won't know exactly what sugar-coated means!" (Wilson, p. 90). Wilson astutely observes that the Emancipation Proclamation "...succeeded not by eloquence, but by inexquisite language exquisitely suited to the occasion" (Wilson, p. 142).

Across a wide range of Lincoln's speech and writing, both including and beyond his better known Gettysburg Address and Inaugural Addresses, Wilson provides revealing insight on how Lincoln "...uses language that, in its rhythms as well as its connotations, carried conviction" (Wilson, p. 280). An appendix in the book also provides commentary on Lincoln's postdelivery revisions of the Gettysburg Address.

For anyone who cares about choosing words wisely, this book offers a treasury of insights.


Jeanne Fahnestock (2021), "Analyzing Rhetorical Style: Toward Better Methods," in R. Boogaart, H. Jansen, M. van Leeuwen (Eds), The Language of Argumentation, Argumentation Library, vol 36, Springer, Cham., pp. 79-96,

Nick Turnbull (2007), "Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences," Revue Internationale de Philosophie, vol. 242, no. 4, pp. 451-472,

Douglas L. Wilson (2007), Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, Vintage: New York