Our Most Eloquent President

by Derrick G. Jeter

Abraham Lincoln was the most eloquent president American has ever had. He may also be the most eloquent American ever. Others, like Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ronald Reagan, undoubtedly were gifted and powerful speakers, yet none of these men have produced a body of work—both written and spoken—that has so profoundly affected the consciousness of our nation. Lincoln’s words remain not because they came from the voice of one silenced through assassination. Other presidents have been assassinated and we can’t remember a word they said. When’s the last time you quoted James Garfield or William McKinley? Nor do we remember Lincoln’s words because he shepherded our country through the most perilous time in our nation’s history. Other presidents have also guided us through turbulent times. But few remember anything George Washington said or wrote during the American Revolution, or a speech from Woodrow Wilson during World War I, or very many things Franklin D. Roosevelt said during World War II.

No, it is Lincoln’s words that remain. He had what William Jennings Bryan (another notable speaker) described as true eloquence: the ability to set thoughts on fire. For those who love words and know the power of words then Lincoln is your man—study him. And there are very few resources better to the study of how Lincoln used words than Ronald C. White Jr.’s The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words.

White has made a career out of writing about Lincoln and his use of rhetoric. In The Eloquent President, White paints a pen portrait of Lincoln’s creative genius by analyzing eleven of Lincoln’s greatest speeches and papers. Helping the reader understand the historical context and how it shaped Lincoln’s thinking as he prepared these addresses, coupled with a careful and thoughtful treatment of the various rhetorical elements in each address, White paints a portrait of Lincoln greater and more humble than we might have ever imagined.

What becomes apparent in White’s analysis of Lincoln’s words is Lincoln was a master of simplicity. Not necessarily using short sentences, but short words. Lincoln primarily employed one syllable words, adhering to the dictum that short words are the best words. Rarely did Lincoln deviate from that practice, maintaining, what White called, a strict custom of using the “Anglo Saxon” and not the Latin or Greek forms of words, which tend to be longer. Beyond this, however, Lincoln’s two greatest rhetorical devises were parallelism and alliteration. Lincoln simply had an ear for words, reading his text out loud to hear the sound in each word and how those individual sounds mixed together to create the music that was his distinctive voice. But more than the mechanics of selecting the right words to work together, White reminds us that “In the end, Lincoln’s eloquence . . . is rooted in one compelling reality. People came to trust Lincoln’s judgment because, in Aristotle’s words, ‘Persuasion is achieved by means of moral character, when the speech shall have been spoken in such a way as to render the speaker worthy of confidence.’” In other words, Honest Abe was indeed honest—we could trust him.

After reading White’s book it is easy to understand why Lincoln remains our greatest president, perhaps only surpassed by Washington. He certainly is our most eloquent. As was said of Winston Churchill (perhaps Great Britain’s most eloquent leader), so could be said of Lincoln: “He mobilized the English language and sent into battle.” Wouldn’t be great if we could have a president today so eloquent as Lincoln? Perhaps we could if we had one we could trust as much as we trust Lincoln.