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Lincoln's Oratory

by Jeremy Mindell

Abraham Lincoln's Oratory is world famous principally for his three major speeches: the First Inaugural, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural speeches.

The first two were delivered at times of great stress the third one on the edge of triumph. Lincoln has been seen as an example by many politicians who succeeded him. Most noticeably Barack Obama whose very speeches have been inspired politically and philosophically by Abraham Lincoln. Obama's victory speech and his inauguration speech lean heavily on Lincoln two examples of Obama's oratory:

"On this day we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord on this day we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises the recrimination and worn out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. "

A use of contrast and a precision of this day that find a reflection in the Gettysburg address like Lincoln Obama uses the bible as his reference point. The next paragraph could have come straight from Lincoln's mouth.

"We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture the time has come to set aside childish things, the time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation the god given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness".

There you can see the list of three indicative of the Lincoln style, the lofty ideals and the rhetoric that moves the audience onto a higher plain. The final example of Obama referencing to the Lincoln era is:

"..and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged form that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatred shall some day pass that the lines of try shall soon dissolve that as the world grows smaller our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace"

You can see the echoes in Lincoln's second inaugural speech where again he uses all the accepted techniques of Oratory:

"..with malice towards none; with charity towards all; with firmness in the right; as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind the nations wound to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations"

Lincoln's speech making has inspired many others. For example Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech directly comes from Lincoln even with the quote that he starts off with:

"Five score years ago a great American who in his symbolic shadow we stand here today, signed the emancipation proclamation this decree came as a great beacon of hope to thousands of negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice".

Of course Lincoln himself was influenced in his speeches by sources before him there is an element of Shakespeare, the Bible and even Thucydides in his speech making. A God fearing nation as the nation was then and remains now could not fail to be moved by the references to scripture. But did Lincoln's oratory actually pay him political dividends? I would argue that in his lifetime Lincoln received very little credit for his gifts.

The emollient words in his first inaugural address did not prevent the South succeeding nor did it particularly rally his own side. Looking at the first inauguration speech would not give any encouragement to the idea of Lincoln the enemy of slavery.

The Gettysburg address was not an immediate success but its reception seemed to depend on ones' party political allegiance. Whereas Churchill and John F Kennedy managed to span the political divide at least in the reception that their speeches had, Lincoln seemed unable to do so. His transformation from a country bumpkin from a remote Hicksville like town into a national figure took place after his death.

Of the three major speeches the most widely known is the Gettysburg Address. It remains one of the most powerful speeches in the English speaking world. However the Address took place at a low point in Lincoln's fortunes. Gettysburg was seen then not as the turning of the tide but as a relief coupled with disappointment that Lee's army had not been dealt a mortal blow on its retreat. The victory at Vicksburg was a year overdue and neither victory could hide the fact that the Southern armies remained undefeated. They were capable of continuing resistance for a long time, the virtual inactivity on the eastern theatre was a source of considerable frustration.

The brevity of his speech was also unusual for a 19th century audience. Everett might today be ridiculed for a 2 hour speech but a 19th century audience expected more substance than a two minute oration from their president. If you compare the effect that Lincoln's oratory had on his immediate political fortunes with the effect that say: John F Kennedy has with his ich bin ein Berliner speech. Martin Luther with his 1 have a dream speech. Winston Churchill with his blood sweat tears and toil speech or indeed Margaret Thatcher with her the lady's not for turning speech. Then Lincoln's does not look as effective.

What Lincoln achieved grew in importance after his death, a President who was unsullied by the inevitable disappointments that the aftermath of war brings left as his lasting testament, great speeches which were used by proponents of civil rights and minority rights as their inspiration. Today Lincoln remains one of the few Presidents, whose legacy almost all politicians want to capture. It is I'm sure an irony that the humble lawyer from Springfield must look down upon with some amusement.


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