Lincoln as an Orator
William Jennings Bryan
Delivered at Springfield, Ill., on February 12, 1909, the one hundredth
anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
LINCOLN’S fame as a statesman and as the Nation’s chief executive during
its most crucial period has so overshadowed his fame as an orator that
his merits as a public speaker have not been sufficiently emphasized. When
it is remembered that his nomination was directly due to the prominence
which he won upon the stump; that in a remarkable series of debates he
held his own against one of the most brilliant orators America has produced;
and that to his speeches, more than to the arguments of any other one man,
or, in fact, of all other public men combined, was due the success of his
party—when all these facts are borne in mind, it will appear plain, even
to the casual observer, that too little attention has been given to the
extraordinary power which he exercised as a speaker. That his nomination
was due to the effect that his speeches produced, cannot be disputed. When
he began his fight against slavery in 1858, he was but little known outside
of the counties in which he attended court. It is true that he had been
a member of Congress some years before, but at that time he was not stirred
by any great emotion or connected with the discussion of any important
theme, and he made but little impression upon National politics. The threatened
extension of slavery, however, aroused him, and with a cause which justified
his best efforts, he threw his whole soul into the fight. The debates with
Douglas have never had a parallel in this, or, so far as history shows,
in any other country.
In engaging in this contest with Douglas, he met a foeman worthy of his steel, for Douglas had gained a deserved reputation as a great debater, and recognized that his future depended upon the success with which he met the attacks of Lincoln. On one side an institution supported by history and tradition, and on the other a growing sentiment against the holding of a human being in bondage—these presented a supreme issue. Douglas won the senatorial seat for which the two at that time had contested, but Lincoln won a larger victory—he helped to mold the sentiment that was dividing parties and re-arranging the political map of the country. When the debates were concluded, every one recognized him as the leader of the cause which he had espoused, and it was a recognition of this leadership which he had secured through his public speeches that enabled him, a Western man, to be nominated over the Eastern candidates—not only a Western man, but a man lacking in book learning and the polish of the schools. No other American President has ever so clearly owed his elevation to his oratory. Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, the Presidents usually mentioned in connection with him, were all poor speakers.
In analyzing Lincoln’s characteristics as a speaker, one is impressed with
the completeness of his equipment. He possessed the two things that are
absolutely essential to effective speaking—namely, information and earnestness.
If one can be called eloquent who knows what he is talking about and means
what he says—and I know of no better definition—Lincoln’s speeches were
eloquent. He was thoroughly informed upon the subject; he was prepared
to meet his opponent upon the general proposition discussed, and upon any
deductions which could be drawn from it. There was no unexplored field
into which his adversary could lead him; he had carefully examined every
foot of the ground, and was not afraid of pitfall or ambush, and what was
equally important, he spoke from his own heart to the hearts of those who
listened. While the printed page can not fully reproduce the impressions
made by a voice trembling with emotion or tender with pathos, one cannot
read the reports of the debates without feeling that Lincoln regarded the
subject as far transcending the ambitions of the personal interests of
the debaters. It was of little moment, he said, whether they voted him
or Judge Douglas up or down, but it was tremendously important that the
question should be decided rightly. His reputation may have suffered in
the opinion of some, because he made them think so deeply upon what he
said that they, for the moment, forgot him altogether, and yet, is this
not the very perfection of speech? It is the purpose of the orator to persuade,
and to do this he presents, not himself, but his subjects. Someone, in
describing the difference between Demosthenes and Cicero, said that “when
Cicero spoke, people said. ‘How well Cicero speaks;’ but when Demosthenes
spoke, they said, ‘Let us go against Philip.’” In proportion as one can
forget himself and become wholly absorbed in the cause which he is presenting
does he measure up to the requirements of oratory.
In addition to the two essentials, Lincoln possessed what may be called
the secondary aids to oratory. He was a master of statement. Few have equalled
him in the ability to strip a truth of surplus verbiage and present it
in its naked strength. In the Declaration of Independence we read that
there are certain self-evident truths, which are therein enumerated. If
I were going to amend the proposition, I would say that all truth is self-evident.
Not that any truth will be universally accepted, for not all are in a position
or in an attitude to accept any given truth. In the interpretation of the
parable of the sower, we are told that “the cares of this world and the
deceitfulness of riches choke the truth,” and it must be acknowledged that
every truth has these or other difficulties to contend with. But a truth
may be so clearly stated that it will commend itself to anyone who has
not some special reason for rejecting it.
No one has more clearly stated the fundamental objections to slavery than
Lincoln stated them, and he had a great advantage over his opponent in
being able to state those objections frankly, for Judge Douglas neither
denounced nor defended slavery as an institution—his plan embodied a compromise,
and he could not discuss slavery upon its merits without alienating either
the slave owner or the abolitionist.
Brevity is the soul of wit, and a part of Lincoln’s reputation for wit
lies in his ability to condense a great deal into a few words. He was epigrammatic.
A molder of thought is not necessarily an originator of the thought molded.
Just as lead molded into the form of bullets has its effectiveness increased,
so thought may have its propagating power enormously increased by being
molded into a form that the eye catches and the memory holds. Lincoln was
the spokesman of his party—he gave felicitous expression to the thoughts
of his followers.
His Gettysburg speech is not surpassed, if equalled, in beauty, simplicity,
force and appropriateness by any speech of the same length of any language.
It is the world’s model in eloquence, elegance and condensation. He might
safely rest his reputation as an orator on that speech alone.
He was apt in illustration—no one more so. A simple story or simile drawn from every-day life flashed before his hearers the argument that he wanted to present. He did not speak over the heads of his hearers, and yet his language was never commonplace. There is strength in simplicity, and Lincoln’s style was simplicity itself.
He understood the power of the interrogatory, for some of his most powerful
arguments were condensed into questions. Of all those who discussed the
evils of separation and the advantages to be derived from the preservation
of the Union, no one ever put the matter more forcibly than Lincoln did
when, referring to the possibility of war and the certainty of peace some
time, even if the Union was divided, he called attention to the fact that
the same question would have to be dealt with, and then asked: “Can enemies
make treaties easier than friends can make laws?”
He made frequent use of Bible language and of illustrations drawn from
Holy Writ. It is said that when he was preparing his Springfield speech
of 1858, he spent hours trying to find language that would express the
idea that dominated his entire career—namely, that a republic could not
permanently endure half free and half slave, and that finally a Bible passage
flashed through his mind, and he exclaimed: “I have found it! ‘A house
divided against itself can not stand.’” And probably no other Bible passage
ever exerted as much influence as this one in the settlement of a great
I have enumerated some, not all—but the more important—of his characteristics
as an orator, and on this day I venture for the moment to turn the thoughts
of this audience away from the great work that he accomplished as a patriot,
away from his achievements in the line of statecraft, to the means employed
by him to bring before the public the ideas which attracted attention to
him. His power as a public speaker was the foundation of his success, and
while it is obscured by the superstructure that was reared upon it, it
cannot be entirely overlooked as the returning anniversary of his birth
calls increasing attention to the widening influence of his work. With
no military career to dazzle the eye or excite the imagination; with no
public service to make his name familiar to the reading public, his elevation
to the presidency would have been impossible without his oratory. The eloquency
of Demosthenes and Cicero were no more necessary to their work, and Lincoln
deserves to have his name written on the scroll with theirs.