Abraham Lincoln: His Story/Chapter 4
It was Abraham Lincoln's speaking which made him the President of the United States. His first speech when he was twenty-three years old raised him out of the ranks of day-laborers in his tiny town. Later his speeches sent him to the state legislature, to Congress, and to the White House, and pointed out the path which this nation followed and is still following, although Lincoln has been in his grave for more than half a century.
How did he do it? How did this awkward, poor, uneducated man, with a bad speaking voice which often broke, make himself the greatest orator of his day? How did he deliver the Gettysburg Address, "which will live until languages are dead and lips are dust"? His methods are plain and simple. Every boy and every man, by following them, can make himself a speaker, and add to his influence with men. Here are some of Lincoln's rules for oratory:
Don't shoot too high. Aim low and the common people will understand you. They are the ones you want to reach — at least they are the ones you ought to reach. The educated and refined people will understand you, anyway. If you aim too high your ideas will go over the heads of the masses and only hit those who need no hitting.
As a lawyer he never used a word that the dullest juryman could not understand. He followed the same method as a speaker. At Yale University the writer studied elocution under Prof. Mark Bailey, who had taught his father before him. Prof. Bailey first heard Lincoln speak when he was stumping New England for Fremont. He was so impressed with Lincoln's power that he followed him from town to town to hear him.
Finally he succeeded in having a talk with him and asked him to explain his success as a speaker. "Well, all I know," said Lincoln, "is that when neighbors would come to my father's house and talk to father in language I did not understand, I would become offended sometimes and I would find myself going to bed that night unable to sleep. I bounded it on the north, south, east, and west until I had caught the idea, and then I said it to myself and when I said it, I used the language I would use when talking to the boys on the street."That was one of the secrets of Lincoln's oratory—the use of the small word. He never used a big word when a little one would do. His sentences were usually short and he spoke not to be heard but to be understood. More than fifty per cent, of the words used in his great speeches are words of one syllable. He would say, "I dug a ditch," instead of, "I excavated a channel"; "I lost out by bad luck," instead of, "I was defeated by a fortuitous combination of circumstances." It is for this reason that he is quoted more than any other American except Franklin, another master of short sentences.
In the Gettysburg Address, the greatest short speech in the English language, he used two hundred and seventy-one words. Of these exactly two hundred are words of one syllable, or almost seventy-four per cent. There are whole lines of short words, such as: "That these dead shall not have died in vain." This use of the short word gives his sentences a force like the impact of a bullet.
Again, Lincoln was a master in the use of Anglo-Saxon. We are not a Latin race and the speaker or the writer who can use language from our Saxon and Viking forebears will always most strongly appeal to us. Examine some of Lincoln's best sentences, such as:
The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.
That this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
As sure as God reigns and school-children read, that black, foul he can never be consecrated into God's hallowed truth.
There is hardly a word from the Latin or the Greek in them.
The use of quaint, homely similies and illustrations was another of Lincoln's methods. When the mayor of New York, in the panic and bewilderment which followed the breaking out of the Civil War, proposed that New York City be taken out of the Union and made a free city—another Hamburg—Lincoln disposed of the plan in one sentence:
It will be some time before the front door sets up housekeeping on its own account.
When his plan of reconstruction was objected to as not elaborate enough, Lincoln defended it with an illustration:
Admit that my policy is in the beginning to what the final policy will be in the end as an egg is to the chicken. Don't you think that you will get the chicken quicker by hatching the egg than by smashing it?
His speeches were full of homely epigrams which needed only to be heard to be admitted, and which stuck forever in his hearers' memories:
God must have loved the common people, for he made so many of them.
You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
Anything that argues me into social and political equality with the negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, as if a man could prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.
Again he would crystallize his whole argument into a single sentence:
Among free men there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet.
We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called upon to perform what we cannot.
We will say to the Southern disunionist, "We won't go out of the Union and you shan't!"
I protest against the counterfeit logic which concludes that because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife.
On the platform as in court Lincoln could retort severely if the occasion demanded it. When only twenty-six years of age he was once bitterly attacked at a political meeting by a sarcastic speaker of great local reputation, who had changed his politics and by so doing had been appointed Register of the Land Office. Moreover, he had the distinction of owning the only lightning-rod in the county. When Lincoln came to reply he said:
I am young in years but younger in the tricks and trade of a politician. Live long or die young, however, I would rather die now than like the last speaker change my politics in order to receive three thousand a year and then have to erect a lightning-rod over my house to protect my guilty conscience from an offended God.
Like Franklin, Lincoln possessed in an extraordinary degree the power of persuasion. Can anything be more appealing, more frank, more void of offense, than his appeal to the South in his First Inaugural Address?
Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? . . . I am loath 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 from every battlefield 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.
Like Franklin, too, Lincoln possessed the tact of a true statesman. The night of Lee's surrender at Appomattox there was a wild time in Washington. A band serenaded the President, playing various patriotic airs, such as "Columbia" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." When Lincoln was called upon to speak he turned to the bandmaster and said: "Play 'Dixie' now. It's ours again."
Another secret of Abraham Lincoln's strength as a speaker was the fact that he had saturated his mind with the two great masterpieces of English literature, the King James' Version of the Bible and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Lincoln read and reread, again and again, both of these books until they became for him a storehouse to which he turned unconsciously for words, and phrases, and ideas. A part of his great speech in 1857 on the Dred Scott Decision of the Supreme Court, which, in effect, took away the last rights of the negro, might have been written by Bunyan:
All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against the black man. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining in the cry. They have him in the prison house; they have searched his person and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which cannot be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different places; and they stand, musing as to what invention in all the dominions of mind and matter can be produced to make the impossibility of escape more complete them it is.
Who but one nourished on the imagery of the Bible could have spoken as Lincoln did in his first reply to Senator Douglas in 1854?
These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon, and whosoever holds to the one must despise the other. . . . Our Republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us purify it. Let us turn and wash it white in the spirit if not the blood of the Revolution.
Last and first and all the time Lincoln's power lay in the fact that he always had something to say. He thought things out for himself, instead of accepting other men's conclusions. In 1856, at the first convention of the Republican party, he delivered a speech which cast such a spell over his audience that even the reporters forgot to take notes. For years it was known as the "Lost Speech." Finally in recent years a report of it was found. Across the years the echo of it thrills us today. Every young man should read Abraham Lincoln's speech of May 19, 1856, which created a great party and outlined principles that this country has made a part of itself.
It was on November 19, 1863, that Lincoln reached his full height as an orator. The national cemetery at Gettysburg was to be dedicated. Edward Everett had spoken for two hours, furbishing up old ideas and redressing old thoughts with wonderful rhetoric and eloquence. Then Lincoln spoke for five minutes. Today no one remembers a sentence, a line, or an idea from Everett's speech. Read what Lincoln said, and note how every sentence rings true and familiar, like some oft-heard chapter of the Bible:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the greet task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.