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Lincoln: Words, Words, Words?

Back in June, MetaEzra announced a project in conjunction with Cornell's New Student Reading Project, Gary Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg. While the incoming class may have groaned at the thought of summer reading, some recent alumni -- all engaged in the nation's political arena in one form or another -- took up the book in stride and agreed to be part of an alumni panel here on this website.

So over the next two weeks we will get to see how Lincoln's words, or Wills's dissection of those words, bring meaning to the livelihoods of recent alums. Of course, these thoughts will come as the incoming Cornell class finds themselves discussing the book in their freshmen writing seminars, sandwiched between the excitement of two national political conventions. We've asked each participant to prepare some brief opening remarks, as well as some questions for future consideration.

And before we begin I would be amiss if I didn't thank Michael Busch at the Office of the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education for his support of this project -- he was able to find some spare copies of the book laying around Day Hall.

We will kick the discussion off with the thoughts of Walter Chen B.S. '04 M.Eng. '05, and 2008 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, presently living in inner-city Detroit. At Cornell, Walter was involved in such student activities as the National Hydrogen Competition and the infamous RoboCub competition. So he definitely brings a varied background to the table. Without any further ado:

I went to see Barack Obama when he came through Detroit two months ago. I think someone told me that the first serious black presidential candidate's sojourn through perhaps the most racially segregated major city in America would mark some kind of historic moment. I waited in line for two hours, cheered for Chauncey Billups when he came on stage, was bored by Obama, and then walked home. I can't think of any politician's words that have moved me, but the media and various 20-somethings involved in national politics continue to insist that Obama is a fantastic orator. Maybe I'm just out of touch with the pulse of America, but I looked around Joe Louis Arena too and saw some bored looks and people moving towards the exits while Obama blathered on.

I guess I have some skepticism generally about the ability for words to remake America -- the very premise for the book. From where I sit reading the book, it seemed like Wills just took it for granted that Lincoln's words remade America--not simply some rhetorical re-conceptualization of America but actually changed the behavior of others and the course of history--and didn't attempt to support that argument. On the other hand, I could just be missing the point.

My claim to being a 20-something involved in national politics is that I'm a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. I work for a federal appellate judge, helping her out by doing legal research and writing. Basically, I help the judge decide cases. Of course, in law, words count for a lot. Willis mentions Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus as part of a severe putting down of the insurrection. The case Ex parte Milligan came out of that time (1866) and about 140 years later the Supreme Court analyzed the words written in that case to determine in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld how to treat illegal combatants. Still, my guess is that law exists to do things; it doesn't exist for its own sake. But even in the realm of law where words count for a lot, they can't seem to determine what happens next.

With that in mind, I prompt the following two questions.

-- Is talking about language something that we just do, or is it actually meaningful? Wilis's side-by-side comparisons of Lincoln's use of language, say, with William Seward's suggestions did not persuade me that Lincoln had a better grasp of the nuances of the spoken word.

-- Taking for granted for a second that words are important: how did Lincoln's invocation of texts such as the Bible open the door later for politicians to use the same language for different (perhaps opposing) political ends?

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 25, 2008 (#)

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