Abraham Lincoln's Writing Speakingby Richard J. Behn
Those who challenged Mr. Lincoln in debate quickly learned how daunting it could be. One early Lincoln biographer, Ohio journalist Joseph H. Barrett, wrote that Mr. Lincoln "met [Douglas] in debate at Springfield, during the time of the State Fair, early in October, 1854, and the encounter was a memorable one in the great campaign then in progress. They met a few days later at Peoria, where Mr. Douglas had no better fortune. Subsequently to that encounter, he showed a decided preference for speaking at other times and places than Mr. Lincoln did."1 Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a pugnacious debater and one of the most accomplished political speakers in the country, shied away from further confrontations with Mr. Lincoln in that campaign. Lincoln had a well-justified reputation for clear, crisp analysis of issues. Lincoln scholar Lewis E. Lehrman noted in Lincoln at Peoria that the Peoria speech exemplified the rhetorical techniques that would propel him to the presidency:
With research and study conducted in the State Capitol, the forty-five year-old attorney carefully prepared a counterattack on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Years of studying Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, preparing for jury trials, litigating in the courts of Illinois, and researching American political history had prepared Lincoln's mind and speech to argue the issues raised by the new legislation. To his natural aptitude for learning Lincoln now joined a mature intellect, a driving instinct for political organization, and a masterful grasp of the facts and logic of the case against Kansas-Nebraska.2
New Yorker James Putnam noted that Lincoln "was one of the most remarkable speakers of English living. In all that constitutes logical eloquence, straightforwardness, clearness of statement, sincerity that commands your admiration...strength of argument...he is infinitely superior to Douglas."3 The New York Evening Post reported: "Stir him up and the fire of his genius plays on every feature. His eye glows and sparkles, every lineament, now so ill-formed, grows brilliant and expressive and you have before you a man of rare power and of strong magnetic influence. He is clear, concise, and logical; his language is eloquent and perfect."4 One Massachusetts attorney who heard Lincoln speak in Chicago in the mid-1850s remembered "that I was impressed with his logical and reflective power, and the absence of all attempt through his speech to produce a sensational effect; and his speaking seemed in these respects to differ from the style then prevalent at the West."5 While Douglas appealed to the emotions of his listeners, Lincoln appealed to their minds.
Mr. Lincoln was tough but no bully. Always the persuader - in personal conversation, in letters and in public statements - Lincoln paved the way for his advocacy. "I do not seek applause, nor to amuse the people, I want to convince them," said Lincoln.6 The eight volumes of the Collected Works of Abraham, reveal his careful intervention in political affairs and his judicious concern for the feelings and opinions of others. Lincoln knew the importance of persuasive speech to a successful attorney, writing: "However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech."7 Rhetoric expert David Zarefsky noted that "Lincoln scholars recognize our sixteenth President's ability to articulate goals and to inspire others to strive to reach them. He was able to give voice to previously inchoate ideas. Lincoln displayed what political scientist Richard Neustadt a century later would identify as the President's chief power: the power to persuade."8 Journalist Horace White, who observed Mr. Lincoln's rise to power in the 1850s, wrote:
At the time when he was preparing himself unconsciously to be the nation's leader in a great crisis the only means of gaining public attention was by public speech. The press did not exist for him, or for the people among whom he lived. The ambitious young men of the day must make their mark by oratory, or not at all. There was no division of labor between the speaker and the editor. If a man was to gain any popularity he must gain it by talking into the faces of the people. He must have a ready tongue, and must be prepared to meet all comers and to accept all challenges. Stump-speaking, wrestling, story-telling, and horse-racing were the only amusements of the people. In the first three of these Mr. Lincoln excelled. He grew up in this atmosphere, as did all his rivals. It was a school to develop all the debating powers that the community possessed, and to bring them to a high degree of perfection. Polish was not necessary to success, but plainness of diction was. The successful speaker was he who could make himself best understood by the common people, and in turn could best understand them.9
While persuasive in political debates on issues like the tariff and slavery, Mr. Lincoln was not a successful speaker under all circumstances. His lectures on topics like the history of invention in 1858 and 1859 were ill-attended. His speech on agriculture in Wisconsin in September 1859 garnered no laurels. But when Mr. Lincoln spoke on public policy - on economic growth in the 1830s and 1840s and on the restriction of slavery in the 1850s - he almost always attracted praise, controversy, and large audiences. Longtime friend William G. Greene remembered Mr. Lincoln's first speech as a candidate for the legislature in 1832: "It was what the world would call an awkward speech, but it was a powerful one, cutting the centre Evry shot."10 A Springfield resident, who heard Lincoln in the 1840 presidential campaign, recalled: "the very first impression made upon us was that he could be implicitly trusted, and he had not spoken five minutes until we felt certain that he was a man of power."11
The power of Lincoln's thought was principle. Lincoln scholar Andrew Delbanco wrote that in President "Lincoln we encounter...a mind searching for transcendent meaning in the carnage and asserting that meaning for both sides."12 Mr. Lincoln sought to expose great truths and apply them to reality. Most conspicuously, Mr. Lincoln did so in the decade after his great speech at Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854. Biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote that in the wake of passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln spoke "with a new seriousness, a new explicitness, a new authority. From his young manhood a lucid thinker and a clever man before a crowd, he will stand forth hereafter as a political analyst and debater of surpassing power."13 Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote that at Peoria, Lincoln "had hold of an authentic message that appealed to his audience on something more ennobling than a partisan basis. It was rooted in concern for the meaning of free institutions and the corrosive inhumanity of slavery, which would be his theme on the hustings until he was elected president in 1860, and throughout his presidency."14
Lincoln had honed his speaking skills in the two decades before his Peoria speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the extension of slavery. He had attuned himself to the methods of persuading his fellow Illinois residents. Wilson wrote: "Lincoln first distinguished himself and earned recognition as a standout stump speaker. His eventual prominence and leadership in his political party was squarely based on such abilities, not only to speak extemporaneously on the stump but also to put down live opponents in debate on the floor of the legislature and elsewhere. For more than twenty years before the debates with Douglas, he matched words with the best orators of his time and place - W. L. D. Ewing, George Forquer, Usher F. Linder, the other John C. Calhoun, and Douglas himself - and was acknowledged by contemporaries on all sides as a superior speaker."15 As a political speaker, Lincoln was sought after and respected. In a growing city like Chicago where Mr. Lincoln often visited on legal business, he was frequently the featured speaker at Republican political events. A leading Springfield attorney, he traveled the vast Eighth Judicial Circuit for months. He was almost always available to speak to political meetings, especially as elections approached. Around 1850, Lincoln wrote:
"Extemporaneous speaking should be practised and cultivated. It is the lawyer's avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech. And yet there is not a more fatal error to young lawyers than relying too much on speech-making. If any one, upon his rare powers of speaking, shall claim an exemption from the drudgery of the law, his case is a failure in advance.16
Lincoln's speeches could not have been delivered without rigorous preparation and study even though they sometimes were extemporaneous. By the early 1850s, Mr. Lincoln had developed a rhetorical idiom that was notable in several ways. He grounded the research for his anti-slavery campaign in the history of in America's Founding. As he would tell Congress in his Annual Message in December 1861, "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history."17 Lincoln once said that "books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new, after all."18 His study of American history was a politically purposeful and solitary occupation - much as his study of the law and Blackstone had been two decades earlier and his study of Euclidean geometry had been in the previous decade. Lincoln scholar John Channing Briggs wrote of Lincoln's speech at Peoria: "His lengthy, calculated, sometimes passionate arguments brought years of thought to fruition in a public forum. What to Herndon seemed a sudden transformation in the face of crisis was a galvanizing moment, a manifestation of the secret processes Herndon had always thought were at work within his partner's silences."19
Often, Lincoln had retreated to the woods to read without interruption. As he advised an aspiring lawyer: "Get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself. That will make a lawyer of you quicker than any other way."20 Lincoln took his own advice. As a congressman, he spent much of his leisure time perusing the books in the Library of Congress and taking them back to his rooming house to read. By 1860, Lincoln was a master of rhetorical research. Historian James M. McPherson wrote of Cooper Union speech of February 1860: "Perhaps no other political speech has ever been so exhaustively researched."21
Out of office during the 1850s, Mr. Lincoln often withdrew to the library at the State Capitol in Springfield to read and study. In the manner of a professional historian, he immersed himself in the documents - as he would again in 1859 to prepare for his Cooper Union speech of February 1860. In these speeches he invoked the evidence of the Founding as the basis of his antislavery arguments, insisting they were in every sense a conservative policy. At Columbus, Ohio, on September 16, 1859, Mr. Lincoln said: "This chief and real purpose of the Republican party is eminently conservative. It proposes nothing save and except to restore this government to its original tone in regard to this element of slavery, and there to maintain it, looking for no further change, in reference to it, than that which the original framers of the government themselves expected and looked forward to."
Careful research was essential to Mr. Lincoln's preparation. Deeply interested in facts and ideas, Mr. Lincoln used them to establish the truth.22 He took notes, made outlines, wrote out his thoughts. Writing clarified his mind better than stump speaking. "He was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid," remembered his oldest son Robert.23 Many of Lincoln's state papers and speeches started out as notes that he compiled over time and then revised to fit the occasion. He told an Iowa congressman that his famous reply to Albany Congressman Erastus Corning began as "disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper." When he needed to write the letter to Corning, he "had it nearly all in" his desk drawer.24
Lincoln spent hours in the Library at the State Capitol, not because he enjoyed research but because his purpose was to prevail in political argument. To the facts and circumstances of history, he applied the axiomatic arguments inspired by the study of Euclid's geometry. The history and principles of the American Founding were the central puzzle of his life. But the story was a factual case that could be discovered. After 1854, he mustered these facts the way generals muster soldiers. He continued to add to the storehouse of historical data which he mobilized to fit specific occasions and counter specific arguments. He kept much of his accumulated research in notebooks, one of which law partner William H. Herndon said contained "all the ammunition Mr. Lincoln saw fit to gather in preparation for his battle with Stephen A. Douglas." Herndon noted that Lincoln "[p]laced the book in his coat pocket, there to repose during the  campaign and to be drawn upon whenever the exigencies of debate required it."25 Indeed, there were two notebooks for Lincoln's use, one of which began with the Declaration of Independence.
Lincoln was a man of ideas. Judging by the content of the Peoria speech, he was clearly a well-tutored if self-taught intellectual. Years of deep study of the law, economics, Euclidian geometry, and crucial episodes of American history had broadened and sharpened the intellect of an ambitious and disciplined public man. He appears to have repeatedly read William Blackstone, the great commentator of English law. The power of Lincoln's message came from reflection. Douglas Wilson observed: "As we can see in the Peoria speech, he had hold of an authentic message that appealed to his audience on something more ennobling than a partisan basis. It was rooted in concern for the meaning of free institutions and the corrosive inhumanity of slavery, which would be his theme on the hustings until he was elected president in 1860, and throughout his presidency."26
As a young man in New Salem in the early 1830s, Lincoln had studied grammar. Throughout adulthood, he absorbed the cadences of great literature. Historian William C. Harris wrote that Lincoln's "absorption in learning the principles of the language enabled him, as he said in 1860, 'to speak and write as well as he now does.' After a careful study of Lincoln's writings, Wilson concluded that the future president's literary excellence can be traced to his fascination as a youth with words and meanings and his obsession with clarity, both in understanding and in being understood."27 Judge Frank J. Williams has noted: "The law taught him...the precise meaning and weight of words."28 Politics examined those lessons. Another Lincoln scholar, Ronald C. White, Jr., wrote: "During his presidency, Lincoln's rhetoric grew and changed, exhibiting new dimensions both in content and style."29 Lincoln scholar Fred Kaplan wrote that Lincoln was "that rarest of public figures, one for whom language matters so much that he felt compelled to use it honestly even when linguistic deceit was the order of the day."30 Language was, as Douglas Wilson has written, "Lincoln's sword," and in his hands, it was a powerful weapon.
Lincoln wrote for the ear as well as the eye. Lincoln said he wrote "by ear. When I have got my thoughts on paper, I read it aloud, and if it sounds all right I just let it pass."31 Douglas Wilson wrote that his "basic sense of language, like the poet's is aural; he hears it."32 Andrew Delbanco wrote that "Lincoln...was a speakerly writer, a writer who understood, as Perry Miller put the matter, that 'language as printed on the page must convey the emphasis, the hesitancies, the searchings of language as it is spoken." Delbanco noted: "In everything Lincoln wrote, whether or not composed for oral delivery, one senses that the words move from his mind via his ear en route to the page. In this sense, the published versions of his speeches are always and only approximations of what and how he spoke."33
Mr. Lincoln's sense of language was formed by the reading he did as a youth and young man. He read several anthologies of English literature, which according to English professor Kaplan, "provided the intellectual groundwork on which to advance his cautious and reasoning temperament: Hugh Blair on moral philosophy, David Hume on history, Edward Gibbon on the Roman Empire, Samuel Johnson on Joseph Addison's style, Laurence Sterne on benevolence, and Alexander Pope on the 'Great Chain of Being.'"34 Kaplan noted that some of these essays used "eighteenth-century rhetorical devices such as antitheses, enumeration, interrogation, and climax, which became elements in Lincoln's style."35 Lincoln scholar John Channing Briggs wrote that Lincoln "was from his early adulthood immersed, despite the frontier's lack of reading materials, in persuasive discourse influenced by older prose and poetry and an appreciation of logic."36 David Zarefksy, a scholar of rhetoric, noted that Lincoln "studied models. Oratorical accomplishment was especially prized in the early republic, and Lincoln acquainted himself with some of the exemplars of the time." Citing the work of Robert Bray, Zarefsky noted that Lincoln "'all but incontestably' read collected speeches of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, as well as Jonathan Elliott's collection of debates on the U.S. Constitution. He 'very likely also read collected speeches of William Henry Seward, Joshua Giddings, and Theodore Parker, and it is 'somewhat likely' that he read those of Patrick Henry."37 Lincoln's reading may not have been broad, but Lincoln retained what he read.
From teenage years onward, Lincoln was a student of history. He joined to his knowledge of American history a keen understanding of the tragedies and histories of William Shakespeare, the poetry of Robert Browning and the grandeur of the King James Bible. Their vocabulary and images provided a rhythm and cadence which inspired his great speeches. As an amateur poet, Lincoln was also a consummate student of rhythm. Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen argued that Lincoln "had a poetic literary sensibility. He was aware of the right rhythm and sound."38 Daniel Mark Epstein contended that Lincoln's reading of Walt Whitman's poems in the late 1850s influenced him stylistically. Epstein wrote: "Before reading Whitman, Lincoln's oratory was analytic and clear, the medium of a lawyer. It was spiced with tall tales, Bible stories, Aesop, and barnyard metaphors. After reading Whitman, Lincoln became a far more dynamic speaker. He learned to raise his oratory to the level of dramatic poetry as the occasion demanded it."39
For Abraham Lincoln, everything he encountered was to be stored away and accessed later. Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln's course of self-improvement drew him into the meetings of the Literary and Debating Society in New Salem, presided over by the warm, generous, and social James Rutledge. When Lincoln first spoke before the group in the winter of 1831-1832, standing with his hands in his pockets, everyone expected him to tell a funny story. To their amazement, he focused seriously on the question before the society. As he proceeded, he awkwardly gestured to emphasize his points, which were so convincing that they astonished his largely uneducated audience. After the meeting, Rutledge told his wife that 'there was more in Abe's head than wit and fun, that he was already a fine speaker; that all he lacked was culture to enable him to reach the high destiny which he Knew was in store for him." As Lincoln gained more experience speaking at these unpretentious meetings, sometimes held in a vacant storeroom, he displayed the logic, intelligence, and spontaneity that would make him the most for formidable debater in the New Salem area."40
Lincoln's words were meant to be read aloud. He liked to read his works to trusted friends and aides. - telling William O. Stoddard: "What I want is an audience. Nothing sounds the same when there isn't anybody to hear it and find fault with it."41 Lincoln said: "I can always tell more about a thing after I've heard it read aloud, and know how it sounds."42 Lincoln scholar Matthew S. Holland wrote: "This staple process of listening with others to his written word was no doubt one reason Lincoln's work so often stretched beyond the serviceable to the memorable."43 He sometimes previewed his speeches for others and occasionally incorporated their comments, but the basic message and form was always Lincoln's. "I have great respect for your opinion," Lincoln told his former law partner, Stephen T. Logan, regarding Logan's suggested changes for his First Inaugural Address, "but the statements you think should be modified were carefully considered by me - and the probable consequences, as far as I can anticipate them."44 Nevertheless, Lincoln adjusted his language to accommodate Logan's concerns.
Lincoln sense of audience was key to his effectiveness as a speaker. He did not want to impress his listeners; he wanted to persuade them. "Lincoln achieved oracularity not by naive sympathy but by thinking in speech about basic principles, and by selectively anticipating and so gaining useful access to his audience's intellectual imaginations of those principles and their significance," wrote John Channing Briggs. "The strange mingling of his resolute energy with an almost alarming passivity allowed Lincoln to persuade while withdrawing into his audiences' world, like a profound dramatist who spoke elliptically through others." Briggs noted that "Lincoln moved audiences for the sake of principles he detected in their aspirations as well as in their self-interest."45 Historian Sean Wilentz wrote that "Lincoln's ability to connect [his] experiences to politics in simple prose, by turns humorous and icily logical, was rare. His speaking style, in the courtroom and on the political stump, was to begin in perfect stillness (his hands clasped behind his back), followed by emphatic head jerks, his semikempt hair flying, as he kindled to his argument, followed by waves of indignation, all punctuated with a sudden glowing gravitas."46
Lincoln learned from his reading more than he directly appropriated for his use. He did not pepper his speeches with learned quotations, although he was fully capable of appropriating and distilling the content or language of others' writings. Scholar Robert Berkelman observed: "In an age of oratory when speakers loved to quote classics by the yard, Lincoln very seldom leaned upon the eloquence of his favorites, very likely because his chief concern in broadly public expression was to make himself absolutely clear to the common man." Berkelman noted: "In the full maturity of his style, during the presidency, he made poetry of prose and transmuted his dogged clearheadedness into the intellectual music of the two Inaugurals, the Gettysburg Address...At the same time that Shakespeare came to mean most to him, his style was reaching its height. The concomitance may not have been mere chance."47 His greatest presidential speeches show how his abilities had evolved. Capable of long expositions on complex topics, Lincoln now showed an ability to speak with uncommon brevity and eloquence. As Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa observed: "The Gettysburg Address is the consummate epitome of a quarter-century of Lincoln's thought and expression."48 Similarly, political scientist Lucas Morel wrote: "With his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln distilled a lifetime of political, philosophical, and religious musings that proposed a connection between slavery, the Civil War, Divine Providence, and the future of American self-government."49
Having done his research, a younger Mr. Lincoln reflected upon it, sometimes while lying indoors on his law firm's couch, sometimes stretched out under a tree. Cogitating about tough subjects was a habit he had adapted as a boy when he said he went "to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of a evening with my father, and spending the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings."50 Fellow lawyers noted that the adult Lincoln sometimes got up in the middle of the night to think. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: "Only when he had resolved the problems and issues in his own mind did he display the results of his private meditations."51
Mr. Lincoln could lose himself in thought on Springfield streets, but he often sought the peace, tranquility, and inspiration of rural spaces. One young man, who observed Mr. Lincoln at Champaign on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, recalled: "Daylight leisure often afforded opportunities for out of door pastimes, chief among which was that of strolling about the little town or upon the roads leading through the nearby forest. These strolls were a favorite manner of disposing of leisure time by Lincoln. Frequently alone and unattended he would be seen, in a thoughtful attitude, with his long arms thrown across his back, pacing by long strides in the direction of the open country. I have often seen him thus, myself, he seeming utterly abstracted from all existing things."52
Walking, especially in the early morning, was a Lincoln habit. At the beginning of March 1860 during his speaking tour of New Hampshire after the Cooper Union speech, Mr. Lincoln's local hosts remarked on this custom of their guest. He sometimes gave two extended speeches later in the day - without notes. In contrast to the well-prepared Cooper Union text of February 27 in New York City, these New England speeches were adapted quickly for the occasion. They borrowed heavily from the careful arguments which Mr. Lincoln had developed in the years since 1854. For such speeches, Mr. Lincoln had a single card or no notes at all. By then, he had assimilated his basic sources. Alonzo Abernethy recalled Mr. Lincoln's speech at Burlington in 1858 shortly after the Galesburg debate with Senator Douglas: "He brought with him a large bundle of papers, which he unrolled and spread out on the table, including many letters and clippings. He arranged these, picking out here and there one, and laying it aside as if to use it; though as I remember, he consulted none of them during the speech."53
Although the daily speaking of early March 1860 pressed his physical stamina to the limit, it did not exhaust the arguments drawn from his memory. As was his practice, he reviewed his mental notes and then arranged them to fit the audience. Political scientist Matthew S. Holland wrote: "that Lincoln "could see more clearly than better-educated advisors all around him what words were needed at what point for what audience. Lincoln understood that many of his 'critics' on emancipation and black enlistments were otherwise supportive friends, and that they were, or were like, the everyday folk of Springfield rather than the intelligentsia of Washington, D.C."54
Mr. Lincoln worked hard to establish a connection with his audience - using humor and invective early in his career. Lincoln's political and legal colleague Joseph Gillespie claimed: "When Mr Lincoln was about I never knew a man who would pretend to vie with him in entertaining a crowd[.] He had an unfailing budget of genuinely witty and humerous [sic] anecdotes with which he illustrated every topic which could arise."55 He also had a well-developed sense of the absurd that enthralled listeners. Andrew Delbanco noted: "Better than any American politician before or since, Lincoln understood humor as a form of communication that forges a partnership between speaker and hearer in which the former initiates the joke until the latter 'gets it' and thereby closes the circle. He understood how a joke establishes intimacy through a feeling of confidential sharing that breaks down the hierarchy of the speaker/hearer relation."56
Lincoln's extraordinary powers of memory played an important part in his rhetorical success. His stepmother recalled: "What he learned and Stowed away was well defined in his own mind - repeated over & over & again till it was so defined and fixed firmly & permanently in his Memory."57 Mr. Lincoln's memory was a natural gift that he deployed in the courtroom and at the dais. "If I like a thing," Lincoln said years later, "it just sticks, after once reading it or hearing it."58 His work in law and politics refined that gift. Mr. Lincoln could arrange facts logically because he remembered them. His intelligence was closely related to his extraordinary memory. Friend Joseph Gillespie recalled: "Mr. Lincoln had an astonishing memory[.] I never found it at fault[.] He could recall every incident of his life particularly if any thing amusing was connected with it."59 Fellow state legislator J. Rowan Herndon remembered that Mr. Lincoln "[h]ad the Best memory of any man I Ever Knew he Never forgot any thing he Read."60 He has had an incredible ability to recall arcane bits of information at the right moment. Chicago Congressman Isaac N. Arnold recalled: "His memory was strong, ready, and tenacious. Although his reading was not extensive, yet his memory was so retentive and so ready, that in history, poetry, and in general literature, few, if any, marked any deficiency. As an illustration of the powers of his memory, may be related the following: A gentleman called at the White House one day, and introduced to him two officers serving in the army, one a Swede and the other a Norwegian. Immediately he repeated, to their delight, a poem of some eight or ten verses descriptive of Scandinavian scenery, and an old Norse legend. He said he had read the poem in a newspaper some years before, and liked it, but it had passed out of his memory until their visit had recalled it."61
Mr. Lincoln's powers of concentration were equally important to his communication skills. "He might be writing an important document, be interrupted in the midst of a sentence, turn his attention to other matters entirely foreign to the subject in which he was engaged, and take up his pen and begin where he left off without reading the previous part of the sentence," noted Lincoln's close friend Joshua F. Speed. "He could grasp, exhaust, and quit any subject with more facility than any man I have ever seen or heard of."62
Nevertheless, Mr. Lincoln often failed to make a good initial impression on his listeners. The bad impression which Lincoln often conveyed when he began to speak was telegraphed by his appearance. "Lincoln is the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame," wrote one observer. "And when he unfolds his everlasting legs and arms and rises to speak, his unique countenance, expressive of the most complete equanimity, the auditor will feel inclined to beat a most precipitate retreat. But a few moments dispel the illusion and he finds himself listening early to a most profound and concise reasoner."63 Lincoln scholar Gary Ecelbarger wrote: "Lincoln's body language bespoke a strange combination of confidence and awkwardness. He leaned forward as he spoke, as if on an incline toward his audience. He began his speeches with his arms tucked behind his back, the knuckles of the left hand nestled into the palm of the right."64 As Lincoln continued to speak, he became more animated and more effective.
The awkward first impression was sometimes reenforced by self-deprecating comments from the speaker himself. Speaking the day after Christmas in 1839, Lincoln began an erudite speech on national banking policy by stating that the low turnout for his address was "particularly embarrassing" when compared to the crowds for earlier speakers in the Democrat-Whig debate series being held in Springfield. "I am, indeed, apprehensive, that the few who have attended, have done so, more to spare me of mortification, that in the hope of being interested in any thing I may be able to say."65 Two decades later, a Democrat who heard Lincoln speak in Leavenworth, Kansas, in December 1859 wrote: "His style of delivery, though concise, and striking plainly on the bearer, bears the impress of labored efforts to collect a smooth and easy flow."66 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that "as so often happened, once Lincoln warmed up, he mesmerized his audience." Burlingame cited a witness to a speech that Lincoln gave at Bloomington in 1858: "Every one had faces up to Lincoln with their attention riveted on him."67
Lincoln understood the way his mind and mouth worked. He told his law partner, Billy Herndon: ""Give me your little pen-knife, with its short blade, and hand me that old jack knife, lying on the table, Opening the blade of the pen-knife he said: You see, this blade at the point travels rapidly, but only through a small portion of space till it stops; while the long black of the jack-knife moves no faster but through a much greater space than the small one. Just so with the long, labored movements of my mind. I may not emit ideas as rapidly as others, because I am compelled by nature to speak slowly, but when I do throw off a thought it seems to me, though it comes with some effort, it has force enough to cut its own way and travel a greater distance."68 Historian Sean Wilentz noted that "Lincoln's ability to connect [his] experiences to politics in simple prose, by turns humorous and icily logical, was rare. His speaking style, in the courtroom and on the political stump, was to begin in perfect stillness (his hands clasped behind his back), followed by emphatic head jerks, his semikempt hair flying, as he kindled to his argument, followed by waves of indignation, all punctuated with a sudden glowing gravitas."69
"I do not mind confessing that when I first saw him coming into the court house yard I was greatly bewildered, for he looked so inferior to what I had in mind," wrote Mormon leader Joseph Smith III after seeing Lincoln speak in Carthage in mid-October 1858. "After the preliminaries were over, Mr. Lincoln arose to speak, leaning slightly forward to peer down at those in front of him. His eyes were dull, his manner awkward, and his voice sharp. For one, I felt very sorry for him, my heart literally aching in my breast. This sensation may have been pity, or it may have been caused by a degree of shame for him and for the party he represented. I cannot accurately analyze the feeling, but whatever it was, it was destined to be short lived, for he had spoken only a very few minutes when he abandoned his stooping posture, stepped a little back from the front of the platform, squared his shoulders and attempted to straighten up. His head came into sudden contact with the bows above him. A humourous expression crossed his face and turning his head slightly to one side, with a sudden movement he thrust it upward, entirely through that bowery business above him! There he stood towering, like some queer creature whose head was detached from its body!" After the offending branches were removed, Lincoln continued. "His eyes brightened, his gestures took on an unstudied grace, his voice lost its harsh and strident accents, and in a few moments his oratory and argument held us spellbound."70 Two years earlier, a Chicago reporter used similar language to describe a Lincoln speech: "For an hour he held the assemblage spell-bound by the power of his argument, the intense eloquence. When he concluded, the audience sprang to their feet and cheer after cheer told how deeply their hearts had been touched, and their souls warmed up to a generous enthusiasm."71
Joseph Gillespie recalled Lincoln stopping in Edwardsville, Illinois, in September 1858; when residents learned that "Lincoln was in the place and the house where we were stopping was crowded and jammed. The people were perfectly enraptured. The bare sight of the man threw them into ecstasies."72 Indiana attorney Jonathan Birch wrote: "When intellectually aroused he forgot his embarrassment, his eyes kindled, and even in his manner he was irresistible."73 Lew Wallace, a Civil War General and author of Ben Hur, wrote after observing Lincoln in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston, that Lincoln's impact grew on listeners: "The pleasantry, the sincerity, the confidence, the amazingly original way of putting things, and the simple, unrestrained manner withal, were doing their perfect work; and then and there I dropped an old theory, that to be a speaker one must needs be graceful and handsome."74
New Yorker George H. Putnam observed that after Lincoln warmed up, his "voice gained a natural and impressive modulation, the gestures were dignified and appropriate, and the hearers came under the influence of the earnest look from the deeply set eyes."75 Lincoln's awkward dress and posture matched his awkward verbal attempt to connect with his listeners that sometimes made them uncomfortable. But that discomfort quickly passed as most were caught up in his earnestness and unique approach to facts and principles. By necessity, Mr. Lincoln often engaged his audience in a dialogue with his audience. Illinois audiences were accustomed to sparring with the speaker. In 1854, even Stephen Douglas interrupted Mr. Lincoln's speech at Springfield to make a point.
Douglas L. Wilson observed that "perhaps the closest one can come [to an independent evaluation of Lincoln's speaking] is a Democratic reporter's account of an appearance in Mount Vernon, in which he specifies the qualities that are needed for success on the stump. 'Mr. Lincoln,' the reporter admitted, was 'listened to with attention; possessing much urbanity and suavity of manner, he is well calculated for a public debater; as he seldom loses his temper, and always replies jocosely and in good humor, - the evident marks of disapprobation which greet many of his assertions, do not discompose him, and he is therefore hard to foil.'"76
During the hectic tour of New England after Cooper Union, he may have been grateful for interruptions that allowed him to collect his thoughts and to make his points in a fresh and responsive manner. He often asked his listeners to "jaw back" to him as they did back in Illinois, where Mr. Lincoln learned to be tough with hecklers. He told one such man in Chicago in 1858: "You don't know what you are talking about, my friend. I am quite willing to answer any gentleman in the crowd who asks an intelligent question."77 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that in 1858: "When 'an unusually impertinent and persistent' heckler interrupted him, Lincoln wearily replied: 'Look here, my friend, you are only making a fool of yourself by exposing yourself to the ridicule which I have thus far succeeded in bringing upon you every time you have interrupted me. You ought to know that men whose business it is to speak in public, make it a part of their business to have something always ready for just such fellows as you are. You see you stand no show against a man who has met, a hundred times, just such flings as you seem to fancy are original with yourself, so you may as well, to use a popular expression, 'dry up' at once.'" On another occasion in 1858 when supporters sought to remove a heckler, Lincoln restrained them: "No, don't throw him out. Let him stay and maybe he'll learn something."78
Extended speaking for two hours or more could be exhausting, even for a man in good physical condition. Unlike Senator Stephen Douglas, Mr. Lincoln learned to husband his physical energy so he could sustain lengthy speaking engagements such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln scholar Saul Sigelschiffer noted of the 1858 campaign: "At Lewistown, Douglas' voice betrayed the first signs of strain. After speaking for an hour he had to stop and someone else had to take over for him."79 Douglas, his voice and body always exerted to their limits, had similar problems during the 1854 campaign. Douglas was so hoarse at Peoria that he struggled to reply to Mr. Lincoln. The day after their Peoria speeches, Douglas used his illness as to avoid further confrontations with Mr. Lincoln. Unlike Douglas, Mr. Lincoln learned how to pace himself - especially in the more grueling campaign of 1858. Mr. Lincoln's physical stamina - and temperance in all things - were legendary and much needed on the campaign trail. Although his high-pitched tenor was not as striking a speaking instrument as the timber of Douglas' baritone, it carried more effectively to the large audiences before which the spoke in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. And Lincoln could continue to speak for longer periods than Douglas. Charles Zane, an attorney who knew Lincoln and later practiced law with Herndon, once said to Lincoln after an hour-long speech: "You must have been about worn out." Lincoln replied, "No, I can speak three or four hours at a time without feeling weary."80
Speaking caused Lincoln some anguish, but how much Lincoln actually feared speaking is a matter of debate. Shortly after Lincoln went to Congress in the winter of 1847-1848, he wrote his law partner William Herndon: "I find speaking here and elsewhere about the same thing. I was about as badly scared, and non worse, as I am when I speak in court."81 Lawyer Henry C. Whitney wrote: "As late as '57, he once said to me while we were going together to a speech making, - 'I wish it was over' - upon my expressing my surprise, he said - 'when I have to make a speech, I always want it over.'"82
As he did in the courtroom, Lincoln often ceded the obvious to his opponent on the stump - giving praise where praise was due especially to long-time acquaintances. Historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz wrote that Lincoln's "concession of the minor point in order to give force to the major was a rhetorical device that he used often in court, with great effect."83 He had the confidence to stick to major points and remain quiet on others. Friend Joshua Speed noted that Lincoln "always resolved every question into its primary elements, and gave up every point on his own side that did not seem to be invulnerable. One would think to hear him present a case in the court, he was giving his case away. He would concede point after point to his adversary until it would seem his case was conceded entirely away. But he always reserved a point upon which he claimed a decision in his favor, and his concession magnified the strength of his claim."84 In 1848, Lincoln wrote legal colleague Usher F. Linder: "In law it is good policy to never plead what you need not, lest you oblige yourself to prove what you can not. Reflect on this well before you proceed."85 Historian Gerald Prokopowicz noted that Lincoln's "concession of the minor point in order to give force to the major was a rhetorical device that he used often in court, with great effect. Lincoln's twenty-first-century critics tend to focus on the concession instead of the conclusion. The conclusion speaks for itself: what is more significant is that in discussing race, when Lincoln was at his worst (by the standards of our time), he was still extremely careful, specific, and limited, by the standards of his."86 Debating erstwhile Whig Anthony Thornton in 1856, Lincoln commenced his remarks: "It is a matter of great regret to me that I have so learned, so able, and so eloquent a man as my friend Anthony here to reply to what I shall say. On the other hand, I take some comfort from the fact that there are but sixteen Republicans in Shelby County, and therefore, however poorly I may defend my cause, I can hardly harm it, if I do it no good. Anthony and I were always old-line Whigs, and we stumped parts of Illinois and Indiana together in 1844 in advocacy of the election of Henry Clay, the Whig candidate for president. We have always been in substantial agreement on all public questions up to this time, but we have sometimes crossed swords in court, and you know Anthony, that whenever we have, you have always cut me as a file cuts soap."87
As President Lincoln would prove in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, he did not necessarily need a long speech to make important points. Illinois State Representative Moses Coit Tyler remembered listening to Lincoln at a Whig legislative caucus in late 1844: "I was astonished to hear a man like him speak so clearly and so exactly to the point. I remember the impression made upon me was, not that he was a brilliant man, nor a fluent one; but eminently practical and sensible. His speech was short, but weighty."88
Perhaps the most notable characteristic of Mr. Lincoln's mature rhetoric was its compelling logic. Through research, litigation, and practice he had learned to perfect case in public and to demolish that of his opponents. Law partner William H. Herndon wrote: "His pursuit of the truth, as before mentioned, was indefatigable. He reasoned from well-chosen principles with such clearness, force, and directness that the tallest intellects in the land bowed to him. He was the strongest man I ever saw, looking at him from the elevated standpoint of reason and logic. He came down from that height with irresistible and crashing force. His Cooper Institute and other printed speeches will prove this; but his speeches before the courts - especially the Supreme Court of Illinois - if they had been preserved, would demonstrate it still more plainly. Here he demanded time to think and prepare. The office of reason is to determine the truth. Truth is the power of reason, and Lincoln loved truth for its own sake. It was to him reason's food."89
In his 1838 Lyceum Address, Lincoln had praised the role of reason in the maintenance of American democracy: "Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence."90 Scholar Angela G. Ray wrote: "In many ways, Lincoln's Lyceum Address looks like practice: practice in public speaking, practice in identifying and responding to situational exigence, and practice in trying out the rhetorical conventions of the time."91 Ray wrote that the Lyceum speech was an important step in Lincoln's development as a speaker: "Working with the constraints of the venue and responding to the expectations of Springfield's ambitious, striving class, he appeared before his neighbors and constituents, carrying his composition, invoking their passions and their prejudices, testing and trying his ideas, weighing words adopted from the lexicon of the day, and exhibiting the skills of formal public speaking."92
Not yet 30, Lincoln was constructing a moral and philosophical framework for his writing and speaking. Four years later in his Temperance Address in Springfield, Lincoln declared: "Happy day, when, all appetites controlled, all poisons subdued, all matter subjected, mind, all conquering mind, shall live and move the monarch of the world. Glorious consummation! Hail fall of Fury! Reign of Reason, all hail!"93 Truth was central to Lincoln's presentations. In an 1846 letter to a newspaper editor, Lincoln wrote: "I believe it is an established maxim in morals that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false, is guilty of falsehood; and the accidental truth of the assertion, does not justify or excuse him."94
Lincoln admitted: "I am not much of a rouser as a public speaker. I do not and cannot put on frills and fancy touches. If there is anything that I can accomplish, it is that I can state the question and demonstrate the strength of our position by plain, logical argument."95 Gideon Welles, who served as Lincoln's secretary of the Navy and observed him speak in Hartford, Connecticut in March 1860, wrote: "When he is called a great stump orator, people think of bellowing eloquence and clownish stories. He is an effective speaker, because he is earnest, strong, honest, simple in style, and clear as crystal in his logic."96 Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan observed: "Lincoln spoke to the mind, believed in the power of reason, and feared that simple appeals to public passions could be demagoguery."97
Springfield attorney Charles Zane recalled: "Intelligent men with impartial and liberal minds, while listening to Lincoln's arguments, appeared to want to agree with him. He never awakened prejudice by narrow and uncharitable statements or inferences. He never unnecessarily irritated his adversaries. While he did not arouse the passions of the 'hurrah boys' as much as some other speakers, his influence was greater with thinking men."98 Lincoln warned against rhetorical arson and he himself was careful not to inflame passion. In 1862, he wrote: "In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity."99
Trial work prepared Lincoln for political speaking. As a youth, future Bloomington attorney James S. Ewing observed Mr. Lincoln: "I was a frequent attendant in the court room, and heard Mr. Lincoln try a great many law suits. The suits themselves often dealt with trivial matters, but great men were engaged in them. Mr. Lincoln was engaged in most of the suits of any importance. He was wonderfully successful. He was a master in all that went to make up what was called a 'jury lawyer.' His wonderful power of clear and logical statements seemed the beginning and the end of the case."100 Another attorney, Moses Coit Tyler recalled: "We had a saying at the bar that 'when Abe Lincoln had stated a case it was more than half argued.' He was wonderfully clear, simple, logical. His mental qualities had been moulded by Euclid," whom Lincoln studied extensively in middle age.101
To his even temperament and remarkable aptitude, Mr. Lincoln joined the experience of a successful lawyer and an even more successful appellate litigator. He knew from courtroom procedure and experience that every jury had to determine the facts in dispute between the plaintiff and the defendant. He knew the decisive role the litigating technique played in determining the jury's decision. He treated his political audiences with the same respect he gave a courtroom jury. During the seven years that followed passage of the Kansas-Nebraska legislation, Mr. Lincoln conceded lesser points while he marshaled arguments to carry the bigger arguments in the court of public opinion as he had on the Eighth Circuit. To a national audience, he projected the force of his personality, experience and logic. As Lincoln biographer Ida M. Tarbell wrote: "We have never had a President of the United States as opinion-wise as Abraham Lincoln. His eyes and ears were always strained to catch the winds of people's thinking, whatever their volume, whatever way they blew."102
Inside and outside the courtroom, close reasoning and simple language grounded each of Mr. Lincoln's fundamental arguments. Friend Joseph Gillespie recalled: "If Mr Lincoln studied any one thing more than another and for effect it was to make himself understood by all classes. He had great natural clearness and simplicity of statement and this faculty he cultivated with marked assiduity[.] He despised everything like ornament or display & confined himself to a dry bold statement of his point and then worked away with sledge hammer logic at making his case."103 Historian Allan Nevins noted that Mr. Lincoln nurtured "an intense pleasure in the logical processes of truth-seeking. He accepted no truth at second hand, but reasoned it out for himself; and once it was found, he tried to set a lucid vision of it before others. In seeking a statement of truth, he slowly gained the finest grace of style, a simple accuracy in diction and a logical progression in sentence arrangement which gave everything he wrote the beauty of perfect clarity."104 Democratic presidential aspirant William Jennings Bryant, himself a noted speaker, observed: "Few have equalled him in the ability to strip a truth of surplus verbiage and present it in its naked strength."105
"It is very common in this country to find great facility of expression and less common to find great lucidity of thought. The combination of the two in one person is very uncommon; but whenever you do find it, you have a great man," Mr. Lincoln told English journalist Edward Dicey.106 Mr. Lincoln was a great man. In a speech at Columbus, Ohio in September 1859, he attacked a lengthy article recently published by Senator Stephen A. Douglas in Harper's Magazine. Historian William E. Baringer wrote that Mr. Lincoln's analysis of Douglas's defense of popular sovereignty was "so sound in its history and so persuasive that it must be read in the original before such magnificent argumentation can truly be appreciated." Baringer noted: "When Lincoln finished shooting holes in the Douglas version of history, there was nothing left of it."107
"Clear" and "logical" were words often used by observers to describe Mr. Lincoln's rhetoric at Peoria and thereafter. Mr. Lincoln spoke to the court of American public opinion - intent on making the case that a vast jury of his peers would understand and approve. By contrast, Senator Douglas depended on rhetoric rather than reason to make his case. "He could make more out of a bad case, I think, than any other man this country had ever produced," wrote journalist Horace White.108 To read Stephen Douglas is to be struck by the sheer aggressive power of his debating technique. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted that Lincoln "rarely said more than he was sure about, rarely pandered to his various audiences."109
Mr. Lincoln's character was formed of stern stuff; he often defied conventional wisdom to speak hard truths. He repeatedly rejected the arguments that economics and climate would contain slavery's spread outside the South - sometimes using rhetorical questions to make his point. William Jennings Bryan observed that Lincoln "understood the power of the interrogatory, for some of his most powerful arguments were condensed into questions. Of all those who discussed the evils of separation and the advantages to be derived from the preservation of the Union, no one ever put the matter more forcibly than Lincoln did when, referring to the possibility of war and the certainty of peace some time, even if the Union was divided, he called attention to the fact that the same question would have to be dealt with, and then asked: 'Can enemies make treaties easier than friends can make laws?'"110
In a speech at Beloit, Wisconsin in early October 1859, Mr. Lincoln said: "[S]lavery is unprofitable at the north, Mr. Douglas says; but this is no reason for its prohibition. Cotton cannot be profitably grown at the north; but who ever thought of State enactments forbidding the raising of Cotton for such a reason?"111 Only a federal prohibition on slavery in the territories for any purpose could limit the spread of human bondage. Mr. Lincoln insisted that law, not climate, determined the limits of slavery. At Janesville, Wisconsin, later the same day, Mr. Lincoln finished the argument. He asked "why slavery existed on one side of the Ohio river and not on the other? Why did we find that institution in Kentucky, and not in Ohio? There was very little difference in the soil or the climate, and the people on one side of the line loved liberty as well as on the other. The northern portion of Kentucky was opposite free territory, while the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, had for neighbors states in which slavery existed....Mr. Lincoln said there could be no other reason than that it was prohibited by congress."112
Mr. Lincoln's speaking and writing style after 1854 was characterized by its consistency. Although he emphasized different points in his speeches, his principles were explicit and immutable. To prohibit slavery, constrained only by the Constitution, was his policy. but he believed the Constitution must be respected until amended. In Congress between 1847 and 1849, Lincoln had voted many times against the extension of slavery into new territories. Mr. Lincoln's comments in Worcester in September 1848, six years before Peoria, suggested his policy. As reported by the Boston Daily Advertiser, "Mr. Lincoln then passed to the subject of slavery in the States, saying that the people of Illinois agreed entirely with the people of Massachusetts on this subject, except perhaps that they did not keep so constantly thinking about it. All agreed that slavery was an evil, but that we were not responsible for it and cannot affect it in States of this Union where we do not live. But, the question of the extension of slavery to new territories of this country, is a part of our responsibility and care, and is under our control."113 Mr. Lincoln's conflict with Senator Douglas epitomized the fight to maintain that control. As he would say at Peoria: "Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature - opposition to it in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism."114 While the evil of slavery was one principle, defense of the constitutional order was another. Thus, despite the revolutionary pressure of Civil War, President Lincoln did not abandon constitutional process even while he made the case for the Declaration's inalienable rights and the power of Congress to restrict slavery in the territories.
In many of Mr. Lincoln's speeches his deft use of irony revealed itself. His was not the sarcastic sledgehammer of Judge Douglas, nor the blunt dagger of Mr Lincoln's rhetoric in first two decades in politics. More like a thin stiletto, Mr. Lincoln's irony of the 1850s deftly punctured the false arguments and elaborate facades of his intended target. For example, in his Columbus speech in 1859, Mr. Lincoln repeatedly referred to the "copyright article" of Senator Douglas - implicitly questioning why anyone would be so proud of these specious arguments so as to want to "own" them.
Metaphors exemplified Lincoln's sardonic irony - the better to demonstrate the absurdity of his antagonists rhetoric. He adopted this manner of speaking as a teenager in Indiana. A Hoosier contemporary recalled: "Mr Lincoln was figurative in his Speeches - talks & conversations. He argued much from Analogy and Explained things hard for us to understand by stories - maxims - tales and figures."115 Time only expanded this gift for figurative speaking. These metaphors - such as his citations throughout 1859 and 1860 of Democratic comparisons of black slaves to crocodiles - made real the moral dilemma of slavery which many of his listeners preferred to ignore. In Wisconsin on October 1, 1859, Mr. Lincoln said: "Mr. Douglas takes it for granted that slavery is not a moral wrong. To him it is a matter of indifference whether it is 'voted up or voted down.' Of course, then, if he makes any pretence to morality, he considers that no moral question is involved. It is right and necessary at the south, he says, and he sneers at the idea of an 'irrepressible conflict' between negro bondage and human freedom. 'They are an inferior race.' 'Between the white man and the negro, he goes for the white man; but between the negro and the crocodile, he goes for the negro.' These are Douglas' sentiments."116
On the way to Washington in February 1861, President-elect Lincoln was fond of speaking metaphorically of the Union as the "ship of state." At Wellsville, Ohio, Lincoln told a somewhat tipsy supporter of Stephen Douglas that "if he and the other friends of Mr. Douglas would assist in keeping the ship of state afloat, that perhaps Mr. Douglas might be selected to pilot it sometime in the future."117 In New York City, he said: "I understand a ship to be made for the carrying and preservation of the cargo, and so long as the ship can be saved, with the cargo, it should never be abandoned. This Union should likewise never be abandoned unless it fails and the probability of its preservation shall cease to exist without throwing the passengers and cargo overboard."118 In Trenton, Lincoln told members of the State General Assembly: "I trust that I may have their assistance in piloting the ship of State through this voyage, surrounded by perils as it is; for, if it should suffer attack now, there will be no pilot ever needed for another voyage."119
Lincoln was also fond using family metaphors to describe the state of the nation. In his House Divided speech, he used the biblical simile for a family in conflict. In Indianapolis on the way to Washington, Lincoln said of secessionists: "In their view, the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only as a sort of free-love arrangement, to be maintained on what that sect calls passionate attraction."120 In his First Inaugural, the president declared: "Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them."121
When it came to slavery, Lincoln spoke directly about its immorality. That slavery was wrong was a first principle of Mr. Lincoln's political code. He repeatedly challenged Douglas's indifference to the humanity of black Americans. Douglas's position entailed sinister implications. Senator Douglas had argued in December 1857 in a Senate debate over the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas: "It is none of my business which way the slavery clause is decided. I care not whether it is voted down or voted up."122 Lincoln recoiled at Douglas' "don't care" position on an issue which Mr. Lincoln argued every American citizen did care about. Again and again, Mr. Lincoln attacked Douglas's "declared indifference" to slavery In Cincinnati in 1859, Mr. Lincoln said "the Judge never says your institution of Slavery is wrong; he never says it is right, to be sure, but he never says it is wrong." Mr. Lincoln said that Douglas "said upon the floor of the Untied States Senate, and he has repeated it as I understand, a great many times, that he does not care whether Slavery is 'voted up or voted down.'... but no man can logically say that he cares not whether a thing goes up or goes down, which to him appears to be wrong. You therefore have a demonstration in this, that to Douglas' mind your favorite institution which you would have spread out, and made perpetual, is no wrong." Lincoln then cited another Douglas tactic:
Upon this subject of moulding public opinion, I call your attention to the fact - for a well-established fact it is - that the Judge never says your institution of Slavery is wrong; he never says it is right, to be sure, but he never says it is wrong. [Laughter.] There is not a public man in the United States, I believe with the exception of Senator Douglas, who has not, at some time in his life, declared his opinion whether the thing is right or wrong; but, Senator Douglas never declares it is wrong. He leaves himself at perfect liberty to do all in your favor which he would be hindered form doing if he were to declare the thing to be wrong. On the contrary, he takes all the chances that he has for inveigling the sentiment of the North, opposed to Slavery, into your support, by never saying it is right.123
Mr. Lincoln refined language and logic to fit his own purposes and the requirements of his political environment. Political scientist Rogan Kersh wrote: "Not only in linguistic usage did Lincoln depart from previous generations. Where [Daniel] Webster and other antebellum unionists were content to rest on established doctrine, Lincoln systematically revalued the concept. Beginning with the territory comprising the American nation and insisting on its profound integrity as united, he proceeded to declare that 'citizens of the United States' were 'united by a purpose to perpetuate the Union.'"124 And so, as President Lincoln argued, the Union was perpetual.
Lincoln cared about how people received his message - before, during and after his speeches. He sometimes previewed his speeches with colleagues, seeking their comments. Even as he spoke, Lincoln sought to gauge how the audience was responding.125 And afterwards, Lincoln sought critiques from friends. Lincoln adjusted his performance as a consequence of these observations. He was very cognizant of whether his voice could be heard by his listeners. Peoria editor Thomas J. Pickett recalled attending the Galesburg debate in October 1858. "I was standing on the outskirts of the immense crowd and Mr. Lincoln came and said: "I am anxious to know whether my voice can be heard as far as Douglas' - Listen and let me know.' I gave close attention and concluded that Mr. Lincoln's thin, wiry voice was much better adapted for out-door speaking than the heavy voice of his rival.'"126
Another witness noted that Lincoln's "voice was clear and penetrating, and, while seemingly not as loud as Douglas's, it could be heard at a much greater distance."127 A third member of audience remembered: "Lincoln, with his ringing tenor voice, sent his words like bullets into every ear."128 An onlooker to another Lincoln speech in the 1858 campaign recalled: "Standing near Mr. Lincoln as I did, hatless, with upturned face, I was conscious now and then of falling mist upon my brow. This, we know, any speaker will emit addressing an outdoor audience with intent to be heard by the farthest listener. I had to keep my red bandanna handkerchief in hand for use whenever he leaned directly toward me..."129
Mr. Lincoln's public argument was distinguished by repetitions of language, logic, law, history, and metaphor. He repeated certain themes, ideas, and even language in his speeches - and in subsequent speeches in different venues. For example, he first used the phrase "house divided" in a speech 15 years before his famous "House Divided" speech accepting the Republican nomination for the Senate in June 1858.130 Historian Allen Guelzo noted: "In 1843, ghostwriting a circular to Whig campaign workers, he had used the statement a house divided against itself cannot stand to exhort his fellow Whigs to greater cooperation; and in 1855, he posed the question Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently - forever - half slave, and half free? in a letter to the prominent Kentucky lawyer George Robertson. He had even unwrapped the warning that a house divided against itself cannot stand and attached it to what was clearly a test run of the state convention speech at the Madison County Republican meeting at Edwardsville only a month before. Even the opening declaration, about first knowing where we are, was a paraphrase of the great Whig orator Daniel Webster and his second reply to Robert Hayne in the Senate in January 1830."131
When President-elect Lincoln said farewell to Springfield on February 11, 1861, he noted that President Washington "never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain."132 Over the next three weeks, he used similar language to express his reliance on God the American people:
His pre-inaugural speeches were a particular burden for President-elect Lincoln, who told a friend that "he had done much hard work in his life, but to make speeches day after day, with the object of speaking and saying nothing, was the hardest work he ever had done."139 These speeches indeed drew many critics, including a Washington politician who would join the Lincoln administration. Lincoln "has not the gift of language, though he may have of western gab."140
In the summer and early fall of 1854, Mr. Lincoln had honed the ideas and logic that would become the Peoria speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Once he found a compelling metaphor, analogy or historical fact, he reused it. He was unselfconscious about repeating or quoting lines from past speeches Commenting on Mr. Lincoln's speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society, attorney Charles Caverno wrote: "I am not going to report that speech. I can only say that we had here in Milwaukee substantially the Cooper Institute speech delivered some months later in New York.."141
Mr. Lincoln appreciated history - even when he had made it. To a delegation of African-Americans from Baltimore who presented him with a Bible in September 1864, the President said: "This occasion would seem fitting for a lengthy response to the address which you have just made. I would make one, if prepared; but I am not. I would promise to respond in writing, had not experience taught me that business will not allow me to do so. I can only now say, as I have often before said, it has always been a sentiment with me that all mankind should be free. So far as able, within my sphere, I have always acted as I believed to be right and just; and I have done all I could for the good of mankind generally. In letters and documents sent from this office I have expressed myself better than I now can. In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man."
Mr. Lincoln adapted and improved themes, arguments and logic that he had already developed or had worked on previously. A few days after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, President Lincoln spoke to a Washington serenade: "How long ago is it? - eighty odd years - since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal.' That was the birthday of the United States of America."142 In his informal remarks of July 11, 1863, Mr. Lincoln rehearsed the thoughts and phrases that would become the substance of his Gettysburg Address on November 19. The commonplace "eighty odd years" became the elegant: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth...." In his book on the Gettysburg address, historian Gabor Boritt noted: "As he found those words, [Mr. Lincoln's] mind wandered back to another crucial moment of his life, the carefully crafted speech that he gave at Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, marking the start of his antislavery crusade. 'Nearly eight years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal,' he said then. Even before the speech at Peoria, his eulogy for Henry Clay, his 'beau ideal' of a politician, began: 'On the fourth of July, 1776...'"143
The themes of America's Founding with the Declaration of Independence were a well to which Mr. Lincoln repeatedly returned to draw sustenance. On two occasions, Lincoln had indicated that he would rather die than violate the intent of the Declaration. Shortly before the Lincoln-Douglas debates began in late August 1858, Lincoln said: "Think nothing of me - take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever - but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles. You may not only defeat me for the Senate, but you may take me and put me to death. While pretending no indifference to earthly honors, I do claim to be actuated in this contest by something higher than an anxiety for office. I charge you to drop every paltry and insignificant thought for any man's success. It is nothing; I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity - the Declaration of American Independence."144
Then on February 21, 1861 in Philadelphia, Lincoln spoke of the nearby Independence Hall: "I have never asked anything that does not breathe from those walls. All my political warfare has been in favor of the teachings coming forth from that sacred hall. May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I prove false to those teachings."145 The next morning, Lincoln stood in front of Independence Hall and spoke of the equality principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Referring to the threat to the Union posed by secession, Lincoln stated: "If it [the United States] can't be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle - I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.146
Mr. Lincoln's rhetoric often demonstrated his reasoned passion. Mr. Lincoln "did hate slavery, but he was aroused to passionate opposition only when it threatened the constitutional-political system," wrote Civil War historian Phillip Shaw Paludan. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska act, Mr. Lincoln saw that the principles of the Declaration of Independence required an active defense. Historian Phillip S. Paludan wrote: "Lincoln's task was to put [the Declaration of Independence] back into [its constitutional] context, to retain the ties between declaring ideals and constituting a political-constitutional culture to realize them."147 Lincoln historian Richard N. Current wrote that in Mr. Lincoln's "view, an American is a citizen who, regardless of ancestry, believes in the democratic principles on which the Republic was founded. Lincoln was also aware that the promise of the Declaration of Independence has not been and never will be realized completely."148 John Channing Briggs wrote: "In their various qualities, his public speeches are hyperbolic in their reaching beyond the Founders to manifest what Lincoln believed they projected. At the same time, they are self-consciously and almost vehemently dependent upon reason, not only in making their arguments but also in insisting upon submission to law and precedent, the founding ideas, and the limits of ordinary understanding."149
Lincoln understood the part that passion played in persuasion. Neither stormy nor pugnacious in the ways of Douglas, Mr. Lincoln did not shy away from public debate. Nor was Mr. Lincoln diffident about assigning responsibility for the causes of the country's divisions. While he did not blame the South for slavery, he did blame the South for its attempts to expand slavery beyond the existing limits set by the Compromises of 1820 and 1850. And he blamed Douglas and his allies for reopening agitation on slavery. After all, in 1851, Douglas had said of the Compromise of 1850: "We claim that the Compromise is a final settlement. Is a final settlement open to discussion and agitation and controversy by its friends. What manner of settlement is that which does not settle the difficulty and quiet the dispute."150 Researching the newspapers and then quoting an opponent against himself was a standard of Mr. Lincoln's public comments.
Mr. Lincoln's speeches in the 1850s were characterized by his preoccupation with national calamity. Long before he stated that a house divided against itself could not stand, he worried aloud about the nation's destiny. He also feared that America and the world could lose the vibrant principles of the Declaration of Independence. The Dred Scott decision confirmed his fears that the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution were being undone by the slave power. At a speech in Columbus, Ohio in 1859, Lincoln said: "Where this [Dred Scott] doctrine prevails, the miners and sappers will have formed public opinion for the slave trade. They will be ready for Jeff. Davis and [Alexander H.] Stephens and other leaders of that company, to sound the bugle for the revival of the slave trade, for the second Dred Scott decision, for the flood of slavery to be poured over the free States, while we shall be here tied down and helpless and run over like sheep."151 Lincoln was not far wrong. Less than two years later in March 1861, Stephens would declare slavery to be the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy.
Despite looming catastrophe, Mr. Lincoln conveyed a cautious optimism. He was uncertain how to end slavery, but nurtured a vague belief that slavery, once contained, would wither over time. But events in the 1850s confounded him, and so he brooded over the future. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote: "A year after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a pessimistic Lincoln feared that there was no prospect for a peaceful end to slavery in the United States. 'On the question of liberty, as a principle,' he wrote, 'we are not what we have been.'"152 In his 1855 letter to Kentucky editor George Robertson, Mr. Lincoln argued:
Sincerely worried as he was about his country, Lincoln retained an equally sincere faith in the good will of most of his countrymen. President Lincoln's confidence in the ultimate justice of the American people was evident when he told the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair in June 1864 of his determination to continue the conflict until union was again achieved: "For the American people so far as my knowledge enables me to speak, I saw we are going through on this line if it takes three years more."154 Speaking to the Ohio's 148th Ohio on August 31, 1864, President Lincoln said: "To the humblest and poorest amongst us are held out the highest privileges and positions. The present moment finds me at the White House, yet there is as good a chance for your children as there was for my father's."155 Such a chance in the future was assured by the perpetuity of the Union and its constitutional democracy which had been entrusted to his temporary leadership.
A great democracy required strong leadership. Mr. Lincoln "realized perfectly that the quality of democracy depends heavily on the quality of leadership," argued historian Allan Nevins. "Lincoln's position that democracy works admirably under a Washington or Jefferson, and fails to work under the Pierces and Buchanans, is not only borne out by history, but is supported by the instinctive feeling of the people. A democracy thirsts for nothing more than sagacious leadership, and is never so happy as when it appears."156
With his 1854 speech at Peoria, Mr. Lincoln established a pattern. After writing out his ideas, Lincoln edited - both before and after he spoke. Douglas Wilson wrote: "Lincoln was well aware that what generated authenticity on the platform at Peoria and what produced conviction on the page were not the same thing. While we have no notes or drafts from which to judge, many passages bear the marks of careful revision and the process of transforming spoken discourse into readable prose."157 Lincoln edited himself. Wilson wrote: "Lincoln has largely succeeded in being the principle editor of his own debates with Douglas."158 Mr. Lincoln directly engaged his immediate audience, but he wrote and edited his speeches mindful of the larger audience that might read his comments in newspapers or pamphlets. This policy of writing, thinking, speaking, and then systematically editing his words for print was perfected after the Peoria debate with Douglas. Historian Gabor Boritt has noted that during his lone congressional term, Lincoln was one of the leading congressmen in distributing his speeches.159
Mr. Lincoln's service in Congress contributed to his growth as a speaker. Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame noted that during his single term, "Lincoln's oratorical prowess won him respect. Charles H. Brainard, a Washington-based publisher who saw Lincoln often during his congressional term, reported that whenever the Illinois Whig 'addressed the House, he commanded the individual attention of all present.' If occasionally his speeches 'lacked rhetorical grace and finish, they had directness and precision, and never failed to carry conviction to every candid mind, while his sallies of wit and humor, and his quick repartee whenever he was interrupted by questions from his political opponents would be followed by peals of laughter from all parts of the hall.'"160
In the years after the Peoria speech, Mr. Lincoln continued to learn how best to frame his arguments. Historian Stephen Berry wrote: "The willful misinterpretation of his 'House Divided' speech frustrated Lincoln, but it also schooled him. The use of familial imagery, he learned, could cut both ways. It could alleviate tension by drawing on natural allegiances and affections, or it could exacerbate tension by drawing on equally natural rivalries and jealousies. Once he was in office, Lincoln's use of the domestic metaphor became extremely careful."161
Lincoln's tinkering with the written word has confused generations of Lincoln scholars who have struggled to decide which of the several texts of the Gettysburg address he actually delivered. At the cemetery's dedication on November 19, 1863, Lincoln's short address was a virtual afterthought to the event's organizers and attendees. Nevertheless, as historian Gabor Boritt observed, President Lincoln's "audience did not mainly come from the people present, important though they were, but from the North as a whole, perhaps even beyond. The chief goal was to bind the nation together; to create a ritual that tied the past to the present and pointed to the future. Wire services carried the whole ceremony around the North, wherever the telegraph went, immersing 'the people' in one fastening ritual, creating community. This was new, but Lincoln was good at understanding the new."162
The Gettysburg Address emerged from a long period of contemplation and a short period of writing. President Lincoln had foreshadowed the later speech in comments delivered in July 1863.163 Boritt noted that Mr. Lincoln "liked to take his time crafting his writing. But assembling some two hundred seventy or so words over two or three days - most likely a thirty-six-hour period - during which the words were constantly in his mind would not have been that hasty. His remarks were based on long years of accumulated learning and wisdom."164 Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller noted "that Lincoln..understood his nation's distinctive self-definition, coming out of the springtime of the Enlightenment, in universal moral truths that we hold, in a creed. He had the poetry in him to make it work: he wrote not of a moral ideal the nation sought, nor of a principle that it served, but of a proposition to which it was dedicated: all men, as Jefferson had written, created equal."165
The president also understood that he had an obligation to avoid ill-considered and ill-thought-out statements that would confuse rather than illuminate. "In my position it is somewhat important that I should say any foolish things," he told a crowd the night before the Gettysburg address in November 1863. A heckler shouted, "If you can help it." Lincoln responded: "It very often happens that the only way to help it is say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further."166 Lincoln keenly felt the responsibility of such communications. Responding to the organizers of an event in Buffalo who wanted a message from him, Lincoln wrote that "a public letter must be written with some care, and at some expense of time."167
President Lincoln tried to limit his impromptu remarks - although he was often called on to address "serenades" outside the White House. On June 9, 1863, the President told a group from Ohio that "the hardest of all speeches I have to answer is a serenade. I never know what to say on these occasions."168 On some such occasions, he would delivered considered remarks - as he did on July 7, 1863 when he clearly tried out the message of the Gettysburg Address more than four months before he delivered it. He began: "I am very glad indeed to see you to-night, and yet I will not say I thank you for this call, but I do most sincerely thank Almighty God for the occasion on which you have called. [Cheers.] How long ago is it?---eighty odd years---since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal.'''169
On other occasions, especially in 1864, Lincoln delivered short inspirational addresses to Union troops as they passed through Washington. In August 1864, Lincoln told the 166th Ohio Regiment: "It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence, that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright - not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel."170 These remarks were indeed jewels, which Michael Burlingame wrote "rank among the best of Lincoln's spontaneous utterances and demonstrate his exceptional ability to address the public without a prepared text."171
Mr. Lincoln held that in a democracy, a politician must acknowledge public opinion, but he himself was no slave to it. He did not change his principles to fit the fashion of the moment thought he carefully considered the reigning public opinion. Stephen A. Douglas's notion of popular sovereignty had plausible appeal in a democracy where majority rule is accepted. Still, Mr. Lincoln rejected popular sovereignty as it applied to slavery. This he did with logic, facts and history while acknowledging that racial tensions forestalled an easy solutions. Of contemporary racial prejudice Mr. Lincoln frankly admitted at Peoria: "A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded." Persuasion would be needed to vindicate the equality principle of the Declaration and that no black man should be made a chattel by popular vote.
A prudent politician, Mr. Lincoln understood the constraints of public opinion. Before eliminating the wrong of slavery, it had to first be confined to its existing boundaries. To be an abolitionist in Illinois was to deny "a universal feeling" in the state. It was to commit political suicide for a politician with statewide ambitions and a national vision. Bold and ambitious, Mr. Lincoln was not politically suicidal. He respected public opinion and he knew it generally moved slowly. Leadership required backbone and persistence, but eschewed rashness. Such patience caused Mr. Lincoln to seize every major opportunity to persuade Illinois constituents of the centrality of the principle that "all men are created equal."
For Lincoln politics demanded debate. Even when Senator Douglas was not present for a formal debate, Mr. Lincoln effectively debated what Douglas had recently said or written. In Chicago in July 1858, for example, Mr. Lincoln replied to a Douglas speech had quoted from Mr. Lincoln's Springfield speech the previous month. Mr. Lincoln then quoted himself. "In this paragraph which I have quoted in your hearing, and to which I ask the attention of all, Judge Douglas thinks he discovers great political heresy. I want your attention particularly to what he has inferred from it. He says I am in favor of making all the States of this Union uniform in all their internal regulations; that in all their domestic concerns I am in favor of making them entirely uniform. He draws this inference from the language I have quoted to you. He says that I am in favor of making war by the North upon the South for the extinction of slavery; that I am also in favor of inviting (as he expresses it) the South to a war upon the North, for the purpose of nationalizing slavery. Now, it is singular enough, if you will carefully read that passage over, that I did not say that I was in favor of anything in it. I only said what I expected would take place. I made a prediction only - it may have been a foolish one perhaps. I did not even say that I desired that slavery should be put in course of ultimate extinction. I do say so now, however, [great applause] so there need be no longer any difficulty about that. It may be written down in the great speech."172
During the 1850s, Mr. Lincoln often posed questions which he proceeded to answer. This tact was characteristic of litigators speaking before a jury. In the Chicago speech quoted above, Mr. Lincoln actually began the explanatory section by asking: "What is in this paragraph?" By quoting Douglas or other political adversaries, Mr. Lincoln created the appearance of a dialogue when he alone was speaking. His speeches were peppered with other questions such as "What are the uses of decisions of courts?" and "I ask, if somebody does not remember that a National Bank was declared to be constitutional?"173
Occasionally, Mr. Lincoln would direct his speech to an individual or a group who was not present. He did so in a 1859 speech in Cincinnati, Ohio which he addressed to Kentuckians on the other side of the Ohio River.174 He did so in his remarks prepared in the summer 1863 for a Union rally in Springfield, but which were addressed to opponents of his administration. Sometimes in the 1850s, Mr. Lincoln spoke as if Senator Stephen A. Douglas were actually present when he was not. In Chicago in July 1858, Mr. Lincoln remarked: "The Judge regales us with the terrible enormities that take place by the mixture of races; that the inferior race bears the superior down. Why, Judge, if we do not let them get together in the Territories they won't mix there."175 Mr. Lincoln, in the manner he had practiced before juries, simulated a two-man debate - taking both sides and demolishing his opponents' arguments seriatim.
Mr. Lincoln was not blind to the sides of an argument. Indeed, he often saw flaws in plausible reasoning. In resurrecting the slavery issue in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas committed a grave error which Mr. Lincoln assiduously avoided - he did not mistake the intelligence or prejudices of the American people. Ohio journalist David R. Locke recalled Mr. Lincoln stating when he visited Ohio in September 1859: "'Slavery...is doomed, and that within a few years. Even Judge Douglas admits it to be an evil, and an evil can't stand discussion. In discussing it we have taught a great many thousands of people to hate it who had never given it a thought before. What kills the skunk is the publicity it gives itself. What a skunk wants to do is to keep snug under the barn - in the day-time, when men are around with shot-guns."176 Mr. Lincoln wanted to expose the skunk.
Senator Douglas doubted that white Americans would appreciate the wrong of slavery. This error by Douglas enabled Mr. Lincoln to appeal to the truth that "all men are created equal." After Lincoln's speech in Dayton in 1859, the Ohio State Journal reported that he "held the attention of the audience for two hours, his clear and irresistible points eliciting frequent marks of approbation....The two Illinois champions are in themselves fair illustrations of the features of Democracy and Republicanism; Lincoln candid, logical and clear-headed, planting himself on principles that no one can controvert and winning the entire confidence of the audience; Douglas aiming at nothing higher than a political dodge."177
Mr. Lincoln understood that he was writing, speaking, and acting for history. In July 1862, he appealed to border state representatives to agree to a plan for compensated emancipation of slaves. "Our common country is in great peril, demanding the loftiest views, and boldest action to bring it speedy relief," said President Lincoln. "Once relieved, it's form of government is saved to the world; it's beloved history, and cherished memories, are vindicated; and it's happy future fully assured, and rendered inconceivably grand. To you, more than to any others, the previlege [sic] is given, to assure that happiness, and swell that grandeur, and to link your own names therewith forever.178
Theodore Sorensen, the primary speech writer for President John F. Kennedy, argued that "Lincoln's words, heard by comparatively few, by themselves carried power across time and around the world." Sorensen argued that Lincoln's speeches had power because "[t]hey present ideas, directions and values, and the best speeches are those that get those right."179 Fred Kaplan wrote: "For Lincoln, words mattered immensely. His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered more than it does today."180
"The power of oratory was never seen to better advantage or more impressively, than in Lincoln's evolution from a circuit lawyer, with an extremely attenuated political record, to the highest position in current history. It was achieved entirely by oratory," wrote Lincoln colleague Henry C. Whitney. "He held no office; had no position where he could act; had no publication in which to air his views; no way to reach the public except by speeches, made generally under circumstances of discomfort and disadvantage, unlike the efforts of public men in general, in a luxurious and stately deliberative hall, with an attendant library, and colleagues ready to give aid and comfort. Unless one has had experience he can never know the difference between speaking under such favorable circumstances and speaking as Lincoln generally had to - from improvised stands in the grove, or in illy ventilated halls, or, as I have seen him, in a rude court house, with so dim a light that he could not see to read an extract. Yet his speeches, generally made under such adverse circumstances, constituted his sole 'stock in trade' with which to enter the  Chicago convention to compete with the statesmen of international fame, and also to bear off the coveted prize" of the presidency.181
William Jennings Bryan was himself a noted orator who twice ran as the Democratic candidate for president. Speaking on the centennial of Lincoln's birth in 1909, Bryan observed: "In analyzing Lincoln's characteristics as a speaker, one is impressed with the completeness of his equipment. He possessed the two things that are absolutely essential to effective speaking-namely, information and earnestness. If one can be called eloquent who knows what he is talking about and means what he says - and I know of no better definition - Lincoln's speeches were eloquent. He was thoroughly informed upon the subject; he was prepared to meet his opponent upon the general proposition discussed, and upon any deductions which could be drawn from it. There was no unexplored field into which his adversary could lead him; he had carefully examined every foot of the ground and was not afraid of pitfall or ambush, and, what was equally important, he spoke from his own heart to the hearts of those who listened."182
Ultimately, the deep impact of Mr. Lincoln's rhetoric was its appeal to the good sense and judgment of the American people. During the Civil War, German-American orator Carl Schurz admonished a friend: "One can always rely upon his [Mr. Lincoln's] motives, and the characteristic gift of this [American] people, a sound common sense, is developed in him to a marvelous degree. If you should sometime find opportunity to read his official papers and his political letters you would find this demonstrated in a manner which would surprise you."183 Lincoln himself said: "It is very common in this country to find great facility of expression, and common, though not so common, to find great lucidity of thought. The combination of the two faculties in one person is uncommon indeed; but whenever you do find it, you have a great man."184
Lincoln was a great man with a great issue, noted William Jennings Bryan:"It was when, in 1854, he found a cause worthy of his championship, that he came from obscurity into great prominence. It was when the question of the extension of slavery became a real issue, that he stepped forth and became the representative of the anti-slavery sentiment."185As historian Lewis E. Lehrman observed in his book on that speech: In his speeches after Peoria, Lincoln appealed primarily to the intelligence, rationality, and fairness of his listeners. One reporter, who heard him speak in Indianapolis in 1859, remembered: "He seemed to be addressing himself to the intelligence and thinking powers of his auditors rather than to their imagination. His words were simple, but every one was weighted with meaning, and when delivered they formed an argument that was irresistible or a statement of fact that was conclusive." When Lincoln spoke in Kansas at the end of 1859, a local slaveholder was called on to reply. He began: "I have heard, during my life, all the best public speakers, all the eminent statements of the past and the present generation, and while I dissent utterly from the doctrines of this address and shall endeavor to refute some of the, candor compels me to say that it is the most able - the most logical - speech I ever listened to."186