December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher

It’s hard to imagine anyone 125 years from now wanting to read two pages worth of speeches or letters by George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson or just about any modern President. (It’s an unhappy sign of the times that the most interesting presidential literature of recent years has been Richard Nixon’s memos.)

But this two-volume set, running to almost 2,000 pages, is fascinating, brimming with ideas, passion and humor—all expressed in language that is direct and specific, yet consistently elegant, even in Lincoln’s brief notes to his political cronies and friends. (And keep in mind that unlike our modern presidents, Lincoln himself wrote almost all the words he spoke or signed.)

The first entry is an open letter from Lincoln to the citizens of Sangamo County, Ill., in 1832, when he was running for the state legislature. In his closing, he writes, “Upon the subjects of which I have treated, I have spoken as I thought. I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them; but… so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”

The last entry, from a day or two before Lincoln’s death in April 1865, is a brief memo ending restrictions on travel to Petersburg and Richmond, Va.: “People go & return just as they did before the war.”

In between is an array of tales and philosophies, confidences and attacks, real wit and real wisdom. In 1838, for instance, he wrote to some friends to describe his failed courtship with Mary Owens. Her sister had arranged a marriage between Owens and Lincoln before the two ever met, and Lincoln doggedly pursued her even after, on meeting her, he found her so fat as to be “a fair match for Falstaff.” Feeling honor bound to propose, he persisted even after Owens rejected him, thinking she was being modest. As it turned out, he writes, “she whom I had taught myself to believe no body else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness…I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself.”

Lincoln’s attitudes toward slavery and blacks is, of course, an overriding theme. While many of his views would hardly seem enlightened today (he goes out of his way to condemn racial intermarriage, for instance), he seems uniformly opposed to slavery, both personally and in political terms, long before he had to confront the issue in the Civil War.

What else? The inaugural speeches, letters to Grant (“Hold on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible”—Aug. 17, 1864), the Gettysburg Address—almost a cliché now but just read it again. Even the most routine speech on banking matters or a brief letter to Lincoln’s father about a debt contains an arresting thought or turn of phrase, and it would be all but impossible to read any substantial part of these books without gaining in admiration and respect for Lincoln.

After losing the Senate campaign to Douglas in 1858, he wrote his friend and doctor Anson G. Henry, “I am glad I made the late race…and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone.” (Library of America, $35 apiece)

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