Today marks the 210th anniversary of the birth of Abraham (Don’t Call Me Abe) Lincoln.
Lincoln did not go to any university, but through his reading he gave himself an education clearly superior to that of most college students today.
Like Jefferson before him, Lincoln didn’t merely read books, he absorbed them. He made notes and underlined key points.
In “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted,” author Tevi Troy makes the point that Lincoln read widely but also had a core of books he went back to time and again throughout his life.
These core works included the Bible, Shakespeare, Parson Weems’ biography of Washington, and Aesop’s Fables.
The Bible gave him guidance, Shakespeare taught him human nature, Weems taught him leadership, and Aesop showed him the value of a brief, insightful anecdotes.
I found an interesting piece on the “Journal of the Association of Abraham Lincoln” website that endeavored to list every book Lincoln read.
The author, Robert Bray, acknowledges that the list cannot possibly include everything Lincoln read. Bray couldn’t access Lincoln’s Amazon account, after all.
But based on library records and Lincoln’s own writings and speeches, as well as other people’s accounts, he compiled an impressive list.
Lincoln’s favorite book was the Bible. He read it early and often, though he was not a church-goer. The strength and wisdom he took from it cannot be overstated.
He read Shakespeare — 13 of the 37 plays, but no poems. Lincoln was not averse to verse, however, perusing the poems of Burns, Byron, Cowper, Milton, Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Whitman and many others.
He read Homer (but not Virgil), Plutarch, Plato and Cervantes.
Among textbooks making the list were an English grammar, a Greek grammar, works on geometry, natural histories, astronomy, rhetoric and elocution.
Lincoln read adventure novels such “Ivanhoe,” “Robinson Crusoe” and the works of James Fenimore Cooper, among others.
He, famously, read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Lincoln said the essays of Francis Bacon influenced his views of slavery. The article includes a footnote, quoting him as telling a man named James Thompson in 1864:
“I read that book (of Bacon essays) some years ago, and at first did not know what to make of it; but afterwards I read it over more carefully, and got hold of Dr. Bacon’s distinctions, and it had much to do with shaping my own thinking on the subject of slavery. He is quite a man.”
Bacon wrote in his 1846 work:
“If those laws of the southern states, by virtue of which slavery exists there, and is what it is, are not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
Lincoln wrote “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” in his famous 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, explaining his evolution on slavery from non-interference to emancipation.
The bibliography also includes “The Effect of Slavery on the American People” by Theodore Parker. This may have contained the seed of what would become Lincoln’s memorable epistrophe (repeating the same words at the end of successive clauses) in the Gettysburg Address.
“Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.”
Lincoln made it flow much better, with the soaring:
“…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln also read political philosophers Edmund Burke, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine, as well as the speeches of great American orators.
Today, sadly, we have college students who have not read any of the works on the Lincoln list.
I think the same may be true even of some of our politicians.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
The stories about our 16th president being a voracious reader were not just legend.