The fact that Abraham Lincoln is now universally recognized as America’s greatest political orator would have surprised many of the citizens who voted him into office. Ungainly in stature and awkward in manner, the newly elected Lincoln was considered a Western stump speaker and debater devoid of rhetorical polish. Then, after the outbreak of the Civil War, he stood before the nation to deliver his Message to Congress in Special Session on July 4, 1861, and, as a contemporary editor put it, “some of us who doubted were wrong.”
In The Eloquent President, historian Ronald White examines Lincoln’s astonishing oratory and explores his growth as a leader, a communicator, and a man of deepening spiritual conviction. Examining a different speech, address, or public letter in each chapter, White tracks the evolution of Lincoln’s rhetoric from the measured, lawyerly tones of the First Inaugural, to the imaginative daring of the 1862 Annual Message to Congress, to the haunting, immortal poetry of the Gettysburg Address.
As a speaker who appealed not to intellect alone, but also to the hearts and souls of citizens, Lincoln persuaded the nation to follow him during the darkest years of the Civil War. Through the speeches and what surrounded them–the great battles and political crises, the president’s private anguish and despair, the impact of his words on the public, the press, and the nation at war–we see the full sweep and meaning of the Lincoln presidency.
As he weighs the biblical cadences and vigorous parallel structures that make Lincoln’s rhetoric soar, White identifies a passionate religious strain that most historians have overlooked. It is White’s contention that as president Lincoln not only grew into an inspiring leader and determined commander in chief, but also embarked on a spiritual odyssey that led to a profound understanding of the relationship between human action and divine will.
Brilliantly written, boldly original in conception, The Eloquent President blends history, biography, and a deep intuitive appreciation for the quality of Lincoln’s extraordinary mind. With grace and insight, White captures the essence of the four most critical years of Lincoln’s life and makes the great words live for our time in all their power and beauty.
White (Lincoln's Greatest Speech) traces Lincoln's evolving rhetoric over the course of his presidency in a series of highly detailed critical essays. He follows Lincoln from the cautious, lawyerly text of the First Inaugural to the soaring, triumphant poetics of the Gettysburg Address. As White rightly emphasizes, a great deal of presidential power emanates from "rhetorical leadership." During the darkest moments of Lincoln's generally grim presidency, he had only his own stark eloquence with which to keep his "house divided" from collapsing entirely, and up to a point it is intriguing to study the mechanics of Lincoln's vital words. Throughout his book, White not only documents the growth of Lincoln's capacity for great inspirational language, but also shows how each major speech and public remark of Lincoln's presidential career was influenced and shaped by shifting, and eminently practical, political considerations. White is adept at analyzing Lincoln's structural tics and cadences, and the subtle plays of syntax in which he relished the repetition of such complementary words as "renew" and "anew." This level of detail, however, makes for some very long and dry albeit illuminating analysis that only the most devoted Lincoln enthusiast will likely be willing to wade through. B&w illus.