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Lincoln’s power was in his words

April 25, 2009

Abraham Lincoln had a true genius for the effective use of language. In an era lacking today’s instant communications technology and media ”sound bites,” and in a time when people relied upon newspapers for information and traveled far and wide to gather together to hear political debates, language was the principal means of shaping discourse and influencing public opinion.


By Michele M. Jochner

Through his masterful use of the written and spoken word, Lincoln had an uncanny ability to connect to the people and to influence the course of history.

Lincoln’s love of language grew directly out of his life journey, which began in a one-room cabin in the wilds of the untamed frontier.

”It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life,” Lincoln once said. ”It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ ”

Lincoln’s youth was spent in a stark existence, performing the back-breaking task of clearing land and planting crops, with little time or money to devote to the luxury of education. One biographer, noting Lincoln’s humble roots, observed that ”[i]t is a constant puzzle to many men of letters how a person growing up without the advantage of schools and books could have acquired the art which enabled him to write the Gettysburg address and the second inaugural.”

Amazingly, Lincoln defied the odds by studying on his own and reading every book he could find. He became his own teacher, and started with the Bible — the standard household text of the time — which was full of vivid stories and moral maxims that found their way into his later writings.

He also obtained copies of Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress and the works of Shakespeare, all of which he read and reread, writing out numerous passages and committing them to memory. The words, style and structure of these works formed the foundation for Lincoln’s later approach to writing.

In 1832, Lincoln decided to run for the Illinois legislature. At age 23, his first political statement appeared in the Sangamo Journal. Lincoln’s essay revealed the beginnings of a style and voice that distinguished him from the other candidates.

After addressing the relevant issues, Lincoln concluded by underscoring his accessibility and humility, and emphasizing his desire to serve for the common good:

”I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected, they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”

Although Lincoln was unsuccessful in this bid, he ran again in 1834 and was elected. At that time, he also committed to become a lawyer. Lincoln relied upon the familiar habits he had used as a young boy: studying alone, reading and rereading his legal tomes.

His love of words translated easily to his new profession. As a lawyer, Lincoln honed principles indispensable to his later writing: the use of precise language and the means of constructing air-tight arguments in support of a position through strong analytical reasoning.

As Lincoln rose in political prominence, his opportunities for public speaking increased. Lincoln’s speeches were based upon carefully drafted essays that he committed to memory. It was not unusual for his colleagues to see him jot down his thoughts on scraps of paper, often storing them in his ubiquitous stovepipe hat until he could weave them into his current work.

Lincoln strove to connect to basic inner truths — often through folksy sayings — and people were inspired by his words and often entertained by his wit and sometimes-sharp satirism. Indeed, it was Lincoln’s eloquence that leveled the playing field against his more educated and socially refined peers.

Of deepest moral concern to Lincoln, however, was slavery — an issue that transcended politics. Through his essays and speeches, Lincoln appealed to first principles, including justice and equality, in the hope of stirring the minds and hearts of his fellow citizens to recognize that the practice must end.

Indeed, it was the slavery issue that prompted him in 1858 to run for the U.S. Senate as the candidate of the new ”Republican” party against Democratic incumbent Stephen Douglas. In accepting the Republican nomination, Lincoln delivered his ”House Divided” speech, wherein he boldly stated what many already knew: that America could no longer exist half-slave and half-free.

Using a familiar phrase from the Bible as his central theme, Lincoln later revealed that he had searched for a universal figure of speech to alert people to the peril of the times:

” ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Although Lincoln gained national attention with this eloquent address, some believed it was too ”radical” for the time. Undeterred, Lincoln adhered to his beliefs, and engaged in a series of seven state-wide debates with Douglas in which slavery was the center-stage issue.

The debates became a true war of words between the men, and thousands traveled from surrounding areas to hear their views. Those unable to attend relied upon newspaper coverage. For the first time, major papers assigned reporters to cover candidates for the entire campaign season, and sent stenographers to take down every word, thereafter circulating the transcripts to papers across the country.

Even though Lincoln lost that election, it provided him with national exposure leading to one of the most important speeches of his career: his February 1860 address at New York’s Cooper Union college. Reprinted in countless newspapers and pamphlets, it established Lincoln as a viable candidate for the upcoming presidential election. After advocating abolition as a moral obligation, Lincoln concluded by imploring all in attendance to be undeterred from this goal:

”Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is…. Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might; and, in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it.”

Soon thereafter, the Republican party nominated Lincoln as its presidential candidate, and, in a rematch against Douglas and two others, Lincoln was victorious. Although Lincoln was the first president who did not hail from the elite and educated class, he was also the first leader with the keen ability to effectively express national concerns. Lincoln’s gift of language, however, was quickly put to the test in the face of dire crisis.

Lincoln’s first inaugural address was delivered on March 4, 1861, after seven Southern states had seceded from the Union. Despite this alarming event, Lincoln attempted to appeal to reason and to reassure the South:

”We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Although Lincoln’s words could not prevent the war, they would prove instrumental in regaining the peace.

In November 1863, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, four months after the Union’s decisive victory.

Viewed as one of the greatest speeches in American history, Lincoln offered an eloquent tribute to those who died so that ”the nation might live,” and also heralded a ”new birth of freedom” guaranteeing liberty, justice and equality for all.

Ironically, inviting Lincoln may have been an afterthought, as the event planners stressed he would have only a small part in the ceremonies to give ”a few appropriate remarks.” Edward Everette, a former U.S. senator and secretary of state, was given the honor of the keynote address, and he delivered a two-hour, 13,000-word oration prior to Lincoln.

In contrast, Lincoln’s speech lasted approximately two minutes, consisting of 10 sentences and 272 words. Yet, within that short time, Lincoln evoked the principles of liberty and equality derived from the Declaration of Independence, and cast the war as a battle to preserve these ideals.

Lincoln also looked forward to the ”great task remaining before us” of reconstructing the country to ensure that ”government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln stated that those who gave their lives for this cause could best be honored by the nation’s commitment to complete this ”unfinished work,” so that ”these dead shall not have died in vain.”

In a letter to Lincoln written the following day, Everette praised the president’s moving and concise speech, saying, ”I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln, in his characteristically humble manner, replied: ”I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”

As the war drew to a close, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Noting the terrible bloodshed of battle, Lincoln ended his remarks with a heartfelt plea for reconciliation and a lasting peace:

”With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Sadly, the words of this eloquent address were to be repeated eight weeks later at Lincoln’s funeral.

Lincoln once stated that ”[w]riting — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world,” and he was of the belief that to writing ”we owe everything that distinguishes us from savages.”

Lincoln was an unparalleled master of this ”great invention,” and through his words he captured our attention, our imagination and our hearts, forever altering the course of history for the better.

Michele M. Jochner is a judicial law clerk to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman. She has served as an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School and at DePaul University College of Law and writes frequently about the law.

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