[The following is from a review of Ronald C. White’s 2006 book Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural.]
White’s best pages capture the sheer drama of Lincoln’s language: “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” ‘Up until now,’ White writes, ‘ “war” was being described as the direct object, both grammatically and historically, of the principal actors. Now, recounting the complex motivations that led to war, Lincoln was beginning to suggest that neither side was fully in control. “War” was about to become the subject rather than the object.’
“And,” in Lincoln’s words, “the war came.” Contemporary newspapers report that because of the crowd’s cheers, he paused a long time before those four short, heartbreaking words. No one describes his tone of voice or rhythm, but it is, as White says, ‘an astounding sentence,’ and in a fine novelistic moment he imagines that Lincoln spoke it not as loud crescendo but ‘softly, mournfully.’
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