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Lincoln's Speeches Reconsidered. By John Channing Briggs. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2005.

John Channing Briggs approaches Lincoln's oft-studied speeches with an English professor's eye, linking them together as a continuous body of work, rather than as separate windows into other social, political, and cultural issues of the Civil War era. For Channing, Lincoln is more than an important American political figure; he is a rhetorician and intellectual of the first order. "His thought was often intricate, layered, [and] controversial," Briggs writes, and "anyone who reads the primary record [of his speeches] in sequence runs into his paradoxical complexity" (5).

Accordingly, Channing provides a very close, meticulous reading of Lincoln's speeches, from his Lyceum Address in 1837 (the first major public speech of his career) to his Second Inaugural Address, delivered just one month before his assassination in 1865. Channing found that Lincoln created "oratorical forms of great simplicity and death" (6), combining political and religious symbolism that was approachable and familiar to common Americans with a sophisticated and subtle dialogue concerning the most fundamental values of American life: moral decisionmaking in a majoritarian democracy, the threat of tyranny in American politics, the proper role of reform groups, the need for a "political religion" that elevates law and order above all, and the need for charity and compassion towards the Confederate enemy.

The sine qua non of all these efforts was, according to Channing, the institution of slavery. Unlike many other Lincoln scholars who see Lincoln coming to the subject of human bondage rather late in his career, Channing sees even his earliest speeches as efforts at grappling with the problems posed by human bondage. "For Lincoln, of course, the problem of perpetuating self-government was connected, from the earliest stages of his career, with the anomaly of slavery's presence in a self-governing republic," Channing argues, "In all his speeches, early and late, these issues blended into one another" (2). [End Page 151]

The analyses provided by Channing in Lincoln's Speeches Reconsidered often provide fascinating nuggets of insight and reveal familiar Lincoln speeches in a new light. His examination of Lincoln's eulogy on the death of Henry Clay in 1852, for example, shows that Lincoln's take on Clay's career was quite unlike those of other Americans who memorialized the Great Compromiser. While others focused on Clay's efforts to effect sectional compromises, Lincoln attempted the "daring innovation" of arguing that "Clay's opposition to slavery was long-standing, principled, and at the heart of his legacy" (115). This is a fascinating and largely unique take on Lincoln's eulogy of Clay, and one that is admirably sensitive to the speech's larger historical context.

But there are drawbacks to Briggs's overall approach. At times he makes tenuous connections between Lincoln's speeches and other major American texts like The Federalist Papers, or speeches by Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. Moreover, he seems at times to have failed to adequately consult the burgeoning historiography on Lincoln's speeches, giving his arguments a somewhat exaggerated suggestion of originality. At one point, for example, Briggs argues that Lincoln's prewar speeches "remain in relative obscurity." But there is in fact a very rich literature on Lincoln's Lyceum Address alone, not to mention works by Harold Holzer, Richard White, Allen Guelzo, Douglas Wilson, and others that offer the same sort of deep, close reading of Lincoln's speeches that is so highly valued by Briggs.

Nevertheless, Lincoln's Speeches Reconsidered is a valuable intellectual history of Lincoln's speeches and developing thought on the issues of democracy, slavery, and self-government. Briggs takes Lincoln seriously as an American thinker and is highly sensitive to context in doing so. As such, his book offers an important contribution to the literature on the nation's sixteenth president.

Brian Dirck
Anderson University