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  • Hearing Lincoln and the Making of Eloquence
  • Robert A. Ferguson (bio)

It is just as well that no video tapes exist of Abraham Lincoln speaking. He had a high, less than pleasant voice, he moved awkwardly, and he spoke with a twang that annoyed many in the Eastern establishment when they did not make fun of it. We marvel at the great speeches today when we read them, automatically granting them hallowed status, but to fully appreciate their worth we must recover the oral craft behind them. A better grasp of how “our most eloquent president” spoke and wrote is also timely; we live in a moment when eloquence in public speech has become a source of political controversy—enough of a controversy that we might ask “what is eloquence?”

Ronald C. White, Jr., Eloquent President1

The disembodied words of Lincoln hold us today, and that already tells us something. Eloquence comes out of time, circumstance, and knowing performance, but it somehow reaches beyond its original components. Although Lincoln, speaking in the crucible of the Civil War, saw just how to convey sacrifice during the greatest blood-letting the country has ever seen, much more was actually at work in his words than thematic power. What interested citizen has not intoned the abstractions that open Lincoln’s benediction to the Second Inaugural? “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.”

Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln2 [End Page 687]

1. Lincoln the Speaker

There is plenty of method behind the way we both hear and say these words. Why have the words themselves remained so important in American speech? The best expressions in language are the ones we want to remember, and attention to the details of Lincoln’s mastery can help to explain how they reach toward permanence, the ultimate test of eloquence. Cutting across the details, however, is the fact that Lincoln was an autodidact, a self-taught man who was secretive about it. This sense of mystery has produced a tangled web of implications about the nature of his accomplishments.3

The turn in current interpretation has been toward the soulful tones in Lincoln’s words as manifestations of personal distress. The expressiveness of feeling in Lincoln is now thought to have been a desperate bargain by one nearly undone by chronic depression and self-doubt. The dark side of the man’s psyche competes today with the oft-told tales of his political genius.4 Where should one place the emphasis? Ironically, one of Lincoln’s most compelling traits has compounded these differences in interpretation; our sixteenth president exhibited a remarkable capacity for intellectual growth at every stage of experience. “There was probably no year of his life,” wrote Horace Greeley, not always an admirer, “when he was not a wiser, cooler, and better man than he had been the year preceding” (qtd in Thomas 498).5

There is, despite these difficulties, one vital area of common ground in all approaches to Lincoln. Every interpretation recognizes the centrality of the speech in his rise. Until 1856 Lincoln was a lesser, one-term Congressman known for unwisely opposing the Mexican War on the floor of the House in 1848. All the same, one speech on 29 May 1856, his condemnation of slavery before “Free Soilers” at the birth of the Republican Party in Bloomington, Illinois, would catapult him into national prominence.

More formative speeches followed. The “House Divided” speech Lincoln delivered on 16 June 1858 as the Republican nominee for the senate seat from Illinois and the ensuing Lincoln-Douglas debates made him the leading Republican of the West. Less than two years later, on 27 February 1860, the Cooper Institute Address in New York would lead to the Republican nomination for president against the clear frontrunner in that state, former governor and long-time US Senator William Seward. Remarkably, all of these triumphs came to a man who had held no significant public office for thirteen years and who had twice lost in seeking one. [End Page...


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pp. 687-724
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