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The Language Of Lincoln, The Language Of Presidents

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During the two-term tenure of President Barack Obama, the White House radiated eloquence. Anyone who heard Obama speak found the words to be sharply and thoughtfully articulated. The diction was superb. And there will be little repetition.

Obama was admired around the globe. His charisma flowed as much from his use of words as from his energy and passion, his suits and ethnicity. His words defined him. It was because of his words that he stood in sharp contrast not only to the man who preceded him in the White House but to the man who succeeded him.

What made the experience of listening to the 44th occupant of the White House unforgettable was the rhythm and cadence in his speech. The prose was poetic, cast as it were in verse. Indeed, when some of his best prose was parsed, it was often laid out in iambic meter.

Obama, the former Senator from Illinois, was a great admirer of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who was a former Congressman from the same state. To emphasize the lineage, Obama placed his hand on Lincoln’s bible as he took the oath of office. The current president has also invoked Lincoln but his attempts have fallen flat.

Lincoln, the man who saved his country from breaking up during a horrific Civil War, is an iconic figure in Western political history. But he is also one of the greatest orators in the English language.

How did it come to be that the son of a poor frontiersmen in Kentucky, a man who attended no college, let alone an Ivy League institution, and a man who spent much of his adult life as a country lawyer in the backwater of central Illinois acquired such stature? It was the gift of language that brought him these laurels and it was very evident ten years ago when his 200th birthday was being observed.While so much has already been written about the man, new biographies continue to be issued, touching on various aspects of his life. Some focus on how he bought his political rivals into his cabinet. Others on his role as commander in chief during the Civil War. But one, by Fred Kaplan, focusing on Lincoln as a writer, provides a different perspective.

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Kaplan informs us that early in his childhood, Lincoln developed a passion for reading. There were very few books in his house so he would read them over and over again until they became second nature to him. They would furnish him with a reservoir of aphorisms from which he would draw almost continuously, first in his legal career and then in his political life. 

His father was a devout Baptist so it is not surprising that he was a vociferous reader of the Bible. In particular, the stories of the Old Testament haunted him and stayed with him throughout his life. Despite this reading of the scripture, Lincoln did not become particularly religious in his adult life. He went to church only now and then, seeing it largely as a social activity. Kaplan argues that there is little scholarly evidence that Lincoln believed in the afterlife or the divinity of Jesus. To him, the Bible was great literature, a book of ethics and morals.

Much of Lincoln’s early literary knowledge came from Thomas Dilworth’s Guide to English. Later on, he discovered the works of Lord Byron, Robert Burns and William Shakespeare.

As he got on in life, he came to see the power of language in influencing people and shaping their views. He would write, re-write, edit and re-edit his speeches until they felt just right. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, none of his major speeches were extemporaneous, including the eulogy he gave at the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, remarkable as much for its content as for its brevity.

William Seward (soon to be secretary of state) contributed an introductory paragraph to Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Seward was very well educated and had been one of Lincoln’s rivals. Lincoln, who rarely used material drafted by others, felt obliged to use Seward’s contribution, even though it was flat in voice and rhythm and pedestrian in its imagery. One of Seward’s passages read: “The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and 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.”

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When Lincoln was done recasting it, it read: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living hearth 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.” Seward’s idea was excellent, but it took Lincoln’s ear for rhythm, alliteration and timing to create an image that touches the human soul a century and a half later. Commenting on this aspect of language, a friend of mine told me that Strunk and White, in an early edition of their classic “The Elements of Style,” show that rhythm injects power into diction in a way that is without equal.

No rearrangement of the seven words in Thomas Paine’s memorable phrase, “These are times that try men’s souls,” can achieve the same effect. “These are trying times, soul-wise,” is a trite alternative that fails. In the same way, while tomes have been written on democracy, no one has more clearly summed up the essence of the idea as Lincoln did at Gettysburg when he called for preserving the “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

For a man whose integrity and credibility were beyond question, Lincoln could have rested on the power of his intellect and on the truthfulness of his ideas. But he did not. He knew that what mattered was not just the substance of the issue, as he understood it, but the substance of the issue as his audience, the people, understood it. And he knew there was no other way to get through to them without putting it in words that they would understand and act upon.

While it was the sword of the Northern Armies commanded by General Ulysses Grant that put an end to the Civil War, it was the force of Lincoln’s pen that preserved the Union.

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