The Magazine

Lincoln the Rhetor

As he saved the Union, he savored the English language.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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At last reliable count, Abraham Lincoln had been the subject of more books than any historical figure other than Jesus of Nazareth--running with scarcely a pause for breath from the quirky portrait assembled by his former law partner "Billy" Herndon. With the advent of his bicentennial year, everyone with a spare sheet of paper may feel the urge to inflate that bibliography. But is there anything new to say?

Perhaps not, though variations may always be played on familiar themes. Indeed, on one aspect of Lincoln's now undisputed greatness, there is some room for elaboration. We think automatically of his wit, his humanity, his tragic sense of life. But we think, even more, of his surpassing articulateness. We think, that is, of Lincoln the rhetor, a valuable if now disused term deriving from Aristotle's treatise on persuasion. That Lincoln wrote splendidly is hardly news to anyone. He was so persuasive when putting pen to paper that he outclassed all other noted public rhetors in our past--even Jefferson, even Madison, even Hamilton.

The ultimate proof lies in his two great inaugural addresses, and to my taste, the subtle letters he dispatched to military commanders obsessed with their own importance and foolishly blind to his.

Who can forget his laconic note to Gen. George McClellan when, in October 1862, the dilatory Union commander complained that his horses were too few and too tired?

I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?

And this, a few months later, to McClellan's overconfident successor, General Hooker?

I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government need a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success and I will risk the dictatorship.

(Hooker is mainly remembered today as the boastful general who was utterly routed by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville a few months later.)

As for the inaugural addresses, Douglas L. Wilson in Lincoln's Sword, an informative study of his writing, has shown in detail how Lincoln revised the draft of the peroration of the first inaugural submitted by William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state-in-waiting. He and Lincoln agreed that conciliatory words should follow Lincoln's lucid statement of the unionist position.

Seward, who was no slouch as a writer himself, proposed:

I close. We are not and must not be aliens or enemies. .  .  . Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass[ing] through all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln's burnished an immortal version:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies but friends--we must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln's buffing of Seward's draft was more than what newspaper people call pencil editing. It shows that his ear was perfectly pitched to the rhythms and tonalities of English--not in the somewhat inflated form in which it was then written but as it would shortly emerge from the laconic pens of Lincoln himself, Mark Twain, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Thirty years ago, the present writer was sitting one day at his desk at the Washington Star, wishing that he had a fresh subject for a column, when he noted a recent letter to the editor. Our reader had challenged a facile editorial pronouncement captioned "Presidents and Words" that had asserted that Lincoln, at Gettysburg, had practiced an "engineering of English," and had by "trickery tuned his language to high effect."

"Engineering," the correspondent suggested, "is a crude analogy, since [it] involves scientific and mechanical principles and writing is basically an art." Lincoln's prose, she insisted, "was an exercise of the ear, not a bag of tricks."
Quite right, broadly speaking. Yet as I noted in response there were in the Gettysburg Address such detectable formal rhetorical devices as antithesis ("The world will little note nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here") and the tricolon ("We cannot dedicate, we cannot hallow, we cannot consecrate this ground").

In the background was a book by C.S. Lewis that is undeservedly less familiar than his religious apologetics or the Narnia stories--a volume with a deceptively arid title: English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. For anyone with an interest in the "engineering of English," Lewis offers a shrewd analysis of the formal devices of such masterpieces as the Book of Common Prayer and the plays of Shakespeare. For instance, the cursus, "certain regular distributions of accent" (as in "written for our learning" and "them that be penitent") and the idem in alio, "the same in another form" (as in Lady Macbeth's anguished description of her indelibly bloodstained hand: "It would the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red").

Lincoln, an assiduous reader of Shakespeare and special fan of Macbeth, had surely noted, and perhaps absorbed, these technical points. Certainly he had them in his aural memory bank.

So again, we aren't speaking merely of Lincoln the good-enough writer, the subject of several recent books, but something, or someone, deeper and more elusive. What is missing is the thread that links Lincoln's prose, formal and informal, to classic rhetorical tricks whose analysis began (and perhaps ended) with Aristotle's Rhetoric.

There is always something mysterious--a je ne sais quoi--about verbal genius. Adlai Stevenson, who knew what he was talking about, conceded the force of John F. Kennedy with a story about the Greeks. When an ordinary orator spoke, they would say "how well he speaks." When Pericles spoke, they said, "Let us march." The let-us-march note marks the difference between competence and genius.

The traditional explanation is that Lincoln's style--inadequate term, since in no case was it ever truer that "the style is the man himself"--evolved from his diligent reading of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Bunyan, other poetic sources. Such a background may be necessary but it isn't sufficient to explain prose of the Lincoln caliber. Many of us read classics closely but never write anything beyond journeyman English.

We may guess at other factors--for instance, Lincoln's trial practice in Illinois courtrooms, the art of persuading plainsmen in homespun in scores of jury boxes. It would quickly have whittled away any tendencies to rhetorical flabbiness. And there was, in his time, the advent of the telegraph, albeit a business of dots and dashes. We use the term "telegraphic" to describe not only the world's first instant analogue messaging but brevity itself. Lincoln, for urgent reasons, haunted the War Department telegraph office, where he would sit patiently, awaiting the decoding of battlefront bulletins. No doubt his native pithiness was made the pithier by the economies of laconic telegraphers.

For the rest, however, not even these factors entirely explain Lincoln's way with words. To say that the style is the man is to concede the underlying factors of native intellect and musical talent, hard as it is, given our egalitarian obsessions, to allow for any form of intrinsic superiority.

It is odd to reflect on these things when the Lincoln bicentennial coincides with the age of text messaging, where too few distinctions are drawn between brevity and banality. No doubt there are scores and thousands of messengers in the blogosphere today who never heard of the cursus or the idem in alio. More's the pity. Something to think about as Mr. Lincoln reaches 200.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington. His full discussion of Lincoln's rhetoric may be found in The Night of the Old South Ball (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1984).