“Public sentiment is everything,” declared Abraham Lincoln in 1858 during his first senatorial debate with Stephen Douglas. “…He who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statues or pronounces decisions.”
Lincoln thought public speaking was a more profound tool for influence and persuasion than the legislative or executive arenas. And his tool of choice was language. The development of his linguistic and rhetorical skills is the subject of “Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation” at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.
Reflecting on his use of language, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer—himself a onetime speechwriter for Mario Cuomo—calls Lincoln “an aspirational model for the modern politician.”
But was Lincoln truly a modern writer? In notes, letters, poems, pamphlets, scribbles and speeches, the exhibit traces the growth of his literary and persuasive skills. It was language that helped him win his senatorial seat and the Republican nomination and presidency, sway public opinion during the prosecution of the Civil War, and pave the way for post-war reconciliation.
Growing up poor in a frontier town, the son of an illiterate and abusive father, Lincoln found refuge in books and poetry. With limited access, his reading was broad but not deep. He read the same works over and over – the King James Bible, Dickens, Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and Edgar Allan Poe. It’s the exact opposite of our reading habits today.
In an age without television, radio or internet, the public had a tolerance for a certain windbaggery. Speakers at debates, rallies and conferences would routinely drone on for two hours or more. Their words were then printed as a pamphlet or broadside and quoted in the newspapers.
Lincoln broke with convention by using language more sparingly. His speeches, which he wrote himself, were tighter than his contemporaries, his word choices simpler, his arguments more direct.
Prominent in the exhibit are copies of the three speeches now considered his greatest – the Second Inaugural, his Cooper Union speech, and the Gettysburg Address.
The Cooper Union address, which won him national attention and helped him gain the Republican nomination, was printed as a pamphlet in 1860. In it Lincoln anchored his anti-slavery argument in the thinking of the nation’s founders and predicted the ultimate end of slavery.
The Second Inaugural was published not long after the inauguration itself on March 4, 1865 as a large broadside in blue ink. With the Confederacy weakening, he used conciliatory language to reach out to his enemies and heal the wounded nation. He ended with the vision of “binding up the nation’s wounds”—borrowed from the Hebrew psalms.
Many today consider it Lincoln’s finest speech, but at the time Southerners detested his message and bitterly fought his nomination and election. After the assassination on April 15, it was reprinted—this time in black ink.
Then there’s the Gettysburg Address. Only 272 words, it memorializes the sacrifices of those who gave their lives on the battlefield in now iconic language. Tony Kushner calls it “a spectacular prose poem.”
For those of us who might want to learn from Lincoln’s craftsmanship, there are no original drafts in the exhibit– no notepads filled with scratched-out lines and ink blotches. We know Lincoln revised his speeches over and over, up until the last minute. But once the speech had been delivered, proofread and typeset, he threw the drafts away. He wasn’t thinking of the archives.
So what kind of model was Lincoln for wordsmiths like us? To contemporary audiences, his spare and direct language is clearly more modern than his contemporaries. Yet there’s a quality of restraint that still sounds antique. I think that’s because Lincoln believed that to win public sentiment, a speaker must appeal to reason, not emotion. As a speechwriter he relied on principles and rational argument to do the heavy lifting.
Today we do the opposite. We enthusiastically use raw emotion to sway our listeners. We whip tension into frothy peaks and sloughs of despair like the most heavy handed and manipulative Hollywood scriptwriters. Our professional gurus tell us a good speech has to play to our audiences’ emotions. Make them feel it in the kishkes.
We also worship at the altar of happiness. As professionals, that’s the state we’re all striving towards, right? But Lincoln was a gloomy guy. He suffered nervous breakdowns, bouts of melancholia, a dark and macabre dream life.
So how was he able to summon the language that would define so profoundly those turbulent times? How did he carry on despite so much suffering? Despite the wealth of documents, this exhibit can’t explain it—except to suggest he prevailed through language.
See it quick! The exhibit ends June 7.
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