By Ronald C. White Jr. (New York: Random House, 2005. Pp. xxiii, 448. $26.95)
Ronald C. White’s new book is a thorough and engaging study of the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln’s major speeches and public letters. The focus on language is clear throughout: White argues that Lincoln carefully crafted his words to address specific situations and persuade his immediate audiences. Yet The Eloquent President is not a literary study per se; it avoids technical, theoretically informed analysis in favor of straightforward readings discussed against the background of the day-to-day life and social encounters of the Civil War President. This is a well-written book without a heavy-handed message or strong thesis. It reads easily and yet makes serious points.
Texts-in-context are highlighted by White’s very approach. He gives us eleven chapters, each devoted to a single Lincoln text or set of texts from 1861 through 1865. Each chapter starts with excerpts from the text at hand. They then slide into vignettes of the period–stories about Lincoln’s daily schedule, his train journeys, correspondence and conversations, preparations for speeches (yes, Lincoln wrote them himself, and often cribbed from his previous writing), personal thoughts as well as political dynamics. Toward the end of the book, White returns to the texts. He provides full versions of each of the speeches and letters in eleven appendices. At the very end, White gives a final nod to context with a short bibliographical essay.
The central thesis–that Lincoln crafted his public words as efforts to persuade in a classical, rhetorical sense–leads White to discuss linguistic influences on Lincoln-the-speechwriter. The President used short, precise, homey Anglo-Saxon diction and vocabulary (no Latin ponderousness or prolixity). He crafted the structure and syntax with discipline (much revision and cutting; use of alliteration and parallelism). He employed biblical tropes from the King James, which common people grasped. He conveyed genuine passion, piety, and religious conviction to arouse an emotional assent without being all that religious himself in a creedal, orthodox sort of way. He made the issues of the day appear very large by setting them in great historical context (e.g., “Four score and seven … “). White furthermore roves back and forth across the Lincoln corpus, showing how the President imported tropes, themes, and phrases from previous writings into his latest speeches.
With his colorful, detailed discussions of the contemporary setting of the speeches, White goes beyond literary techniques to show how Lincoln should be seen above all else as an orator, a speech-giver, alert to the audience, attuned to the latest news, sensitive to the auditory dimensions of words. White even urges his readers to read out loud the selections at the beginning of each chapter in order to catch the rhythms, cadences, and sounds of Lincoln’s prose (xxiii). Lincoln wrote to speak. He used few words and spoke slowly. He persuaded.
There is a virtual publishing industry on Lincoln these days, as White’s bibliographic essay demonstrates; in fact, this is White’s second book on the topic. White nonetheless has something to add to a huge literature. He gives us an admirable, sensitive, and gifted Lincoln-the-politician, whose personal character, genius, and political sagacity worked its way into public speech. In our time, when Presidents and politicians may not seem to merit such praise, White’s Lincoln stands as a rebuke. He also stands as a reminder of the potential of truly democratic discourse.
MARK VALERI is E. T. Thompson Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Va.