A Note on Lincoln’s Eloquence By Richard Sale


Thank you for Pat for your magnificent story.  Everything works: the drawing of the characters, the positioning, the crafted dialogue, the historical background, the underlying tensions.

But in thinking of the Gettysburg Address, one is reminded Lincoln is often portrayed as a man who, when a little boy, read the Bible a lot and he became a great writer because of it. Nothing could be further from the facts. His eloquence was not natural. His excellence with words is the result of a very conscious literary artistry. Everything he wrote betrays a great effort of mind and an intensely critical inner ear.

As a young boy, Lincoln tried to be a poet, wanted to be one, but knew he lacked that gift, but he had a tenacious to know things. One of my teachers, Jacques Barzun, once wrote of Lincoln’s work, “Pick up any volume of Lincoln’s works as if you were approaching a new author. Pretend you know nothing of the anecdotes; nothing of the way the story embedded in these pages comes out.  Your aim is to see a life unfold.”


It should remembered that Lincoln read all the books he could lay his hands on, and very consciously and laboriously hammered out a style that would be read with force and profound feeling. He hated the approximate, the obscure, and the clumsy. He hated decoration or embellishments of any kind, although he made good use of a quiet theatricality.

When he was only 29 he wrote, “Turn then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis.  A single victim was sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic of anything of its length that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man by the name of McIntosh was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a free man, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.”

Lincoln’s talent for the short phrase that lands with a punch is clearly displayed here. The sentences, “A single victim was sacrificed there.  His story is short,” remind me of the early Hemingway stories, the words blunt, perfectly timed, packed with quiet power.

The commonplace claims that Lincoln basically read the Bible that that turned him a genius with words, but that is false. He read everything, Byron, Burns, Defoe, Shakespeare, Aesop’s fables. From these he learned how to be terse yet forceful, agile yet undecorative. He didn't use images as Shakespeare does, but his language is full of unexpected twists and turns like Grant in his memoirs. Lincoln’s stepmother noted that when Lincoln came to a passage he liked he would write it down on boards if he had no paper, and keep it there “till he did get paper and would rewrite it, look at it and repeat it.”

Lincoln demonstrated an obsession with condensation, telling a story in the fewest words possible. “John Fitzgerald, eighteen years of age, able-bodied, but without pecuniary means, came directly from Ireland to Springfield Illinois,  there stopped and sought employment with no present attention of returning to Ireland or of going elsewhere. After remaining in the city some three weeks, part of the time employed and part not, he fell sick and became a public charge. It has been submitted to me, whether the city of Springfield or the Country of Sangamon is, by law, to bear the charge.”

Not a word wasted.

His English is simple, forceful, his words well chosen because Lincoln had a musical ear for inner and outer alliteration. His old acquaintances were struck by is resolution to express himself feeling and clearly. His aim was to reach people through their feelings, their hearts.

One thinks of Homer’s line about Hector’s death, “Throughout the city they sorrowed.” Or, “Then each man went to his hut to take his rest.” Think then of Lincoln’s, “Peace does not appear as distant as it once did.”

I have always had as a favorite Lincoln’s line after trying to be elected for an office for the first time, “But if the good people see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”

The sense of private suffering, of private grief borne with stoicism is very much Lincoln’s note.

Lincoln was a great master of construction, the slow accumulation of thought and rhythms of language to convey density of mind and emotional depth.

He was not above plagiarizing.  Think of his “Farewell Address at Springfield Illinois.”  It was given on a gray winter day when the rain was falling.

“My friends.  No one not in my situation can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. “(beautiful and natural alliteration.) “To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.  Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man.  Here my children have been born, and one is buried.  I now leave, not knowing when or whether I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.  Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed.  With that assistance, I cannot fail.  Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.  To his care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

It is a splendid passage, almost incantatory, with splendid balance and concision.  Of course, Lincoln did not believe much in a Divine Being (Lincoln’s ideas about Christianity were so unusual that as associate of his burned them in a stove)  and we may be suspicious of the claim that his task was greater than Washington’s,, but that last of his speech is perfect.  It was from Washington’s own Farewell Address.

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8 Responses to A Note on Lincoln’s Eloquence By Richard Sale

  1. Perhaps why Carl Sandberg’s Lincoln still resonates.

  2. Farmer Don says:

    Not only Lincoln, but that time in general. Read the notes of ordinary civil war soldiers writing home, or General Grant’s writing and you will be impressed by how these people used the written word.
    “Lincoln’s ideas about Christianity were so unusual that as associate of his burned them in a stove”
    Wow! This is the first time I’ve read this assertion. Where does it come from?

  3. Bill H says:

    Informative and very well written piece. Thank you.

  4. A marvelous essay, Mr. Sale. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the notion that reading Shakespeare and the King James were chiefly, if not entirely, responsible for Lincoln’s wonderful ability with the English language. (That skepticism, though, may simply be remarkable 20 20 hindsight.)
    As for Sandburg, I have the complete set and have yet to open the 1st volume. I should get to it before I run out of time.

  5. I would add, echoing F.D., that people of that time were more facile with the language .

  6. N.B. Sandberg was primarily a poet not a professional historian!

  7. Trent says:

    Thanks for this. I admire Barzun’s The Use and Abuse of Art.

  8. Bob Bernard says:

    Not specifically related to Lincoln, but this infographic re the WBS is interesting.

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