Batavia man co-authors book that 'cracks the code' on Lincoln
Dan Van Haften and David Hirsch wouldn't have described themselves as Lincoln scholars four years ago, but they have surely earned the title of Lincoln "detectives."
Van Haften, a retired Alcatel-Lucent employee who has lived in Batavia since 1980, and Hirsch, a lawyer in Des Moines, Iowa, have written a book they believe has "cracked the code" as to what made Lincoln such a persuasive speaker and writer.
"Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason" represents a three-year journey of research that the two 63-year-old authors embarked on to correlate Lincoln's use of Euclidean Elements, thus embedding the ancient structure of geometric proof in his writing and public speeches.
The result is a book for Lincoln enthusiasts that the authors, who have been friends since first grade at Plymouth Elementary in Midland, Mich., feel will be particularly fascinating for any lawyer, historian or writer who has to make a persuasive argument.
"Structure of Reason" shows correlations between the methodology behind Lincoln's writing and speeches with that of Greek mathematician Euclid, who lived from 325 B.C. to 265 B.C. and is credited with the first discussions of geometry and illustrating how his propositions could be used to make logical deductions.
The starting point for such a complex and interesting book project was quite different from the finish line.
"I wrote a technology column for more than a decade for the American Bar Journal and we went to the new Lincoln exhibits in Springfield to do research for an article I intended to do about how Lincoln would fare as a lawyer in the modern technological world," Hirsch said of the 2007 trip he took with Van Haften.
"I was totally hooked on Lincoln after that visit, and we stopped by the train station that he departed from for Washington, D.C., and there was a plaque of his farewell speech, and the beauty of it caught me."
It started the two discussing the possibility of writing a book called "Lawyering Like Lincoln" about how Lincoln's law practice might fare vs. modern-day law offices, and there was no intention to deal with Lincoln's presidential years.
That all changed after Van Haften, who wanted to read all of the Lincoln-Douglas debate documents, started digging into his research.
"Early on I decided I wanted to figure out how Lincoln made arguments," Van Haften said. "I ended up with seven legal-size pages of handwritten notes on the debates and presented them to David, who immediately spotted a reference to Euclid in one of my paragraphs."
Because Hirsch had always told Van Haften that math and English were the two most important subjects to study before law school, there was a belief that Lincoln took it a step further.
"David asked me to find out everything in Lincoln literature regarding Euclid and Lincoln, and there were countless references to Euclid, and they all said about the same thing," Van Haften said. "Lincoln read Euclid, he mastered Euclid, and he took Euclid's Elements with him while riding the judicial circuit."
But there would be much more work for these Lincoln detectives to make a clear presentation in a book to explain their findings.
"The only substantive clue that there was more here than meets the eye was a loose statement that Lincoln read Euclid to find out how to 'demonstrate,'" Van Haften noted. "Nothing in Lincoln literature explains specifically what Lincoln found in Euclid.
"David said to do what Lincoln did, go study the first six books of Euclid and figure out what it means to demonstrate," Van Haften said. "That was exciting, and from that came all of our discoveries."
With the shift now toward a Lincoln-Euclid connection, Van Haften began working on the book full time after retiring in late 2007, while Hirsch would "steal time" from his law work to make his contributions.
Van Haften points to his talks with the late Lee Moorehead, a retired Batavia Methodist minister, in the 1990s as the seeds that strengthened his interest in Lincoln and the Civil War.
"I started attending the annual three-day Lincoln seminars in Springfield run by Lee and Betty Moorehead, and years later, when I got started on this project, Betty let me use some of Lee's books," Van Haften said.
For Hirsch, finding connections to Euclid's six elements of a proposition in Lincoln's writings, including the famous Gettysburg Address and Cooper Union speeches, was like a kid being let loose at Disney World.
"When the core focus of our work shifted to Lincoln's writing and his speeches, it was like endorphins for us, it was just a thrill," Hirsch said.
"The legal profession itself is Euclidean," Hirsch reasons. "Lincoln used it first in his trials, and then in his presidential speeches.
"We didn't intend to get into this aspect of Lincoln, but we went where the research took us, and it was fascinating."
The book was released last November through Savas Beatie, an independent publisher specializing in Civil War and military history books. It is available in some Chicago area bookstores and online through Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble. More information is available at thestructureofreason.com.
Van Haften will make a presentation about the book during the monthly Books Between Bites program April 21 at the Batavia Public Library.