Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

    Contributing Editor:
    Elaine Sargent Apthorp

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Lincoln's words are familiar to students, who have received those words, or the echo of them, by a hundred indirect sources, and who sometimes conflate the Gettysburg Address with the Pledge of Allegiance--and not by accident. (Similarly, the man himself has been rendered unreal by his status as a culture hero and icon; part of the reconstruction process entails restoring personhood to this historical figure-- reconstructing his statesmanship and character by describing the context in which he grew and worked, the forces he had to contend with as a politician and as President, etc.) A problem is how to make the words live in their original context--so that by stripping them temporarily of their canonization in the store of U.S. holy scriptures, we can see why they were so appropriated--what it was about these words that moved Americans in the aftermath of the war. And what about Lincoln's construction of these statements has made them so emblematic of cultural ideals we still cherish (however vague their application)?

    To give the meanings back to the words, we need to (1) restore vividly the historical context in which these speeches were composed and to which they were addressed, and (2) read slowly and explicate together as we go. What precedents and values is he calling to his listeners' minds? What does he ask them to focus on? What doesn't he choose to talk about, refer to, or insinuate?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    I've tried to canvass these in the headnote. It's important that the students know, for example, that the battle of Gettysburg was in many respects the turning point in the Civil War. It was the farthest advance the Confederate forces were to make. In addition, it was the bloodiest and most costly battle (in sheer number of lives lost on both sides) in what was a devastatingly bloody war (over 600,000 battle casualties over four years, with another million and more dead from disease via infected wounds, malnutrition, inadequate medical attention).

    Students should know something of how Lincoln was perceived in the North and South during his presidency, the polarized forces with which he had to contend even among the nonseceding members of the Union, his concern for maintaining the loyalty of slave-holding border states and holding out hope for reunion with the Confederate states, in tension with the pressure he felt from the radical Republicans who urged the emancipation of slaves by executive proclamation, and so forth. This kind of information helps us to interpret both of the Lincoln documents in our selection.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Again, see the headnote on style--biblical allusions and cadence, lawyer's cutting and distinguishing, simplified syntax and diction. In a discussion of oratory as it was practiced in this period, point out ways in which Lincoln participated in and departed from the practice of oratory that was considered eloquent in that day (e.g., Edward Everett who preceded Lincoln on the podium at Gettysburg).

    Original Audience

    1. The audience could tolerate, and indeed expected, long, florid, syntactically complex speeches. They were, at the same time, both more literate and more aural than we are (we're more visual, attending to images rather than words or sounds).

    2. The audience were Christians. War had bitterly divided North from South; politicians debated while many people experienced death at rebel or Yankee hands. Lincoln had to consider how to appease the vindictive rage/triumph/urge-to-plunder of the conquering Union supporters while establishing foundation for political and economic reconstruction and rebuilding. He had to rally maximum support (reminding North and South of their common faith; characterizing the war as a war for the Union's democratic survival, not as a war to free slaves or alter the economic order of society--using Union and Constitution, obscuring states' rights).

    3. Consider our own time, and our longing for the rock of humane statesmanship that Lincoln has represented in the popular mind. Consider the motives behind his canonization after assassination, when he had been so unpopular while alive in office. Consider the uses Lincoln has been put to, by politicians, etc. Consider the evolutions in public perception of Nixon, Kennedy, etc.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    1. A bit of Everett's speech at Gettysburg for comparison with Lincoln's little Gettysburg Address.

    2. Samples of biblical prose for comparison with Lincoln's.

    3. Elements of debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, again for comparison.

    4. Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," "I Have a Dream," etc., to discover the uses of Lincoln for other politically active people/groups.


    Studies on Lincoln's life and career exist in flourishing and staggering abundance, and most of them examine the language of his speeches and other public and private documents to help develop their interpretations of Lincoln's character, attitudes, and policies as they evolved.

    Steven B. Oates's With Malice Toward None offers what is finally a sympathetic and admiring account of Lincoln, but it is tempered and qualified by a scrupulous confrontation with inconvenient evidence and careful consideration of the poles of controversy in Lincoln studies between which he means to place his own interpretation.

    There are also a number of essays that explore Lincoln's writings as works of literature, which trace one or more of the several strands of law, rural imagery, backwoods humor, Shakespeare, and the Bible, which inform Lincoln's rhetoric. Entire books have been devoted to establishing the historical contexts in which Lincoln developed the Gettysburg Address or the Emancipation Proclamation, but for the instructor on the go nothing beats Jacques Barzun's Lincoln the Literary Genius (Evanston, Illinois: Evanston Publishing Co., 1960). It's short but covers much ground and offers perceptive close analysis of Lincoln's rhetorical techniques and style--both identifying these elements and suggesting their effects and implications.

    One more recent study that employs analysis of Lincoln's speeches is Charles B. Strozier's psychoanalytic study of Lincoln, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987; Basic Books, 1982), chapters 6-9 but especially chapter 7, "The Domestication of Political Rhetoric."