An Interview with Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason authors David Hirsch and Dan Van Haften: Part 1
: The discovery that Abraham Lincoln had a code or template for his speeches, and that you broke that code, is really quite extraordinary. How did this all come about?
David: I have long believed there was a connection between mathematics and language. During junior high school (middle school) study halls I used to play with word equations and try to make the connection algebraically. This led to dead ends, and for lack of a better description, this “project” I envisioned remained dormant.
: What changed?
David: In 2007, Dan and I traveled to Springfield, Illinois, where I needed to research an article for the American Bar Association Journal . . .
: Just so readers are clear, you are an attorney.
David: Yes, I am. And Dan retired in 2007 from Alcatel/Lucent. The purpose of my research was to determine how Abraham Lincoln might have functioned practicing law in today’s technological setting. I concluded in a short two-page article that Lincoln would have done just fine in today’s legal environment—I won’t bore you with all the details—but more significantly the trip hooked me on Lincoln.
: How so?
David: I found everything about him fascinating, but one memory of our trip really stands out. After touring the first Lincoln & Herndon law office, I turned to Dan—whom I have known since the first grade—and casually remarked, “You know, practice in Lincoln’s time was not that different from small-town Midwestern legal practice when I started in the early 1970’s.”
Dan: At that point, I suggested we visit the small train station where Lincoln embarked to Washington as President-elect. It was locked, but what proved more important to us was not what was inside but the plaque outside with Lincoln’s Springfield farewell address. David read it and said, “What a remarkable, beautiful speech.”
: This prompted you to write about Lincoln?
David: We decided to co-author a book describing the American legal system and Lincoln’s role therein, using Lawyering Like Lincoln as a working title. At first we planned to exclude Lincoln’s presidential years and his speeches, but that changed quickly . . .
: How so?
Dan: (laughing). I told David the first thing I wanted to do was read the complete Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Cooper Union speech. David thought this was a peculiar way to begin our project. I ended up with seven legal-sized pages of handwritten notes on the debates and presented them to David, who immediately spotted a reference to Euclid in one of my paragraphs. Seeing the name of a man known worldwide as the “Father of Geometry” shocked David who, for lack of a better description, went “bananas.”
David: (laughing). I was immediately back in junior high school study hall thinking about word equations and math. And I began to wonder, “Was the key to Lincoln’s extraordinarily effective speeches mathematically based?” Dan immediately set out to discover everything he could in Lincoln literature regarding Euclid and Lincoln.
: Given the volume of Lincoln literature, that is one tall order for a research assignment and neither of you were, at that time at least, Lincoln scholars.
David: Right on both points, but I think the fact that we were not Lincoln scholars proved to be an advantage. We rolled up our sleeves without any preconceptions and simply let the evidence take us wherever it led.
: And did you find additional references to Euclid?
Dan: I found countless references to Euclid and they all said about the same thing: Lincoln read Euclid, he mastered Euclid, and he took Euclid’s Elements with him while riding the judicial circuit. The only real substantive clue that there was more here than meets the eye was a rather loose statement that Lincoln read Euclid to find out how to “demonstrate.”
: And the obvious question is, “demonstrate what?”
Dan: Exactly. So I did what Lincoln did. I read Euclid’s Elements in an effort to find out what it means to “demonstrate,” and David told me that when I figured out what that meant, to find something Lincoln wrote or spoke that confirms it.
David: Quite some time passed and then Dan called and said, “I’ve got it.” I asked him, “Do you have an example to prove it?” He answered, “Yes. The Cooper Union speech.”
: That’s how this unfolded?
Dan: One discovery led to another: the legal system itself, the Thomas Jefferson connection, and a lot more.
End of Part 1
An Interview with David Hirsch and Dan Van Haften, Part 2,
Who Cracked the Lincoln Code?
: There is an older title that is very rare and hard to find called Lincoln + Euclid: A + B, by someone named C. W. Kent. That title alone at least hints that someone else mayhave cracked the Lincoln code before you.
David: On its face that seems possible, but to our knowledge that is not the case. The Kent title you mentioned was published in the early 1930s, I think, and it is one of the strangest productions either of us has ever seen. Dan spent an afternoon at the Northern Illinois University Library and discovered that C. W. Kent was a charlatan and a medical quack. The closest he comes to our theory is to put “Euclid” in the same sentence (or equation) as “Lincoln.”
Dan: I remember thinking the Kent book appeared it would be one of the most interesting items on the list of items that I wanted to review on my first trip to the Lincoln Presidential Library, and boy was it a disappointment. James Cornelius, the Curator of the Lincoln Collection at the library is as knowledgeable regarding Lincoln as any living person. The collection he oversees is one of the few places that has a copy of Kent’s book. The title itself seems to equate Kent with Euclid and Lincoln: Euclid + Lincoln = Kent; A + B = C; Universal Formula: Grammar of nature or key to the master mind. Cornelius thought we were right to ignore this book.
: Why is that?
Dan: Even calling it a “book” or insinuating it is scholarship at any level is a leap. It’s a jumble of the most bizarre disparate things you can think of, and it has nothing to do with logic or speech structure at all. It is nothing like its title implies.
David: In general, some of the articles or titles we have found are simply not even about what their title suggest they might be. Most of the others we have found that mention Lincoln and his speeches usually focus on poetry, or word choice, music, and even religion. They micro-analyze the speeches and miss the macro point of it all.
: Hence, Abraham Lincoln and the “Structure” of Reason.
: It is very interesting that scholars who have studied Lincoln for decades never
David: They were too focused on his individual words and their meaning.
Dan: It is important to realize that we aren’t the first to connect Euclid to Lincoln.Lincoln himself did that. Over the decades many Lincoln scholars attributed at least some of Lincoln’s oratorical sharpness to his study of Euclid. But the Lincoln scholars that correctly did that only superficially analyzed the nature of that connection.
David: Some people “think” the code was broken before our book was published, but they are mistaken. I recall telling a local lawyer a few months ago our discovery and she responded, “Didn’t Gary Wills crack the code to Lincoln’s speeches?” The answer is no, he didn’t. Nowhere in his published work does Wills talk about the six elements of a Euclidean proposition and relate them to a Lincoln speech.
:Your book alludes to that on pages 247-248 when you set forth a quote by Nathan Brooks reviewing another book that analyses The Cooper Union Speech.
David: Yes, I know it well. In that quote Brooks discusses “the lack of evidence Lincoln left us as to how he crafted his speeches,” and he goes on to analogize that “there is no ‘legislative history,’ so to speak, regarding Lincoln’s speeches.”
Dan: That pretty much sums up the “state of the art” regarding Lincoln’s “structure” when our book was released.
: So why did Lincoln’s “structure” remain hidden in plain sight for 150 years?
David: Several reasons. Invariably, the weakness in Lincoln study over the years was the micro-analysis of his speeches. It focused on words when it needed to focus on structure. It looked at leaves when it needed to look at trunks and branches. The blast of green made the forest invisible.
Dan: It is also important to keep in mind that the six elements of a proposition were largely lost in the dust bin of history. Euclid himself used the six elements religiously, but he didn’t state that he used them. He didn’t diagram or explain how he used them. We both think that this is something that probably was just “understood” in Euclid’s time. The Greek Proclus, writing in the fifth century AD, wrote an influential commentary about Euclid and is largely responsible for preserving the six elements. But his commentaries are so abstruse that one does not automatically extract them.
: And then there is Mr. Lincoln.
David: The scholars have it right about that man. He was indeed a genius in our opinion. He was someone who really wanted to figure out what “demonstrate” meant and then apply it. In the process, Lincoln transferred the six elements of a proposition from Euclid and geometric proof to oratory, using the technique for political and legal demonstration. We are the first to discover this, and we are the first to prove this.
Dan: And it has been a complete honor and privilege to delve this deeply in Lincoln and write this book.