The fact that Abraham Lincoln is now universally recognized as America’s greatest political orator would have surprised many of the citizens who voted him into office. Ungainly in stature and awkward in manner, the newly elected Lincoln was considered a Western stump speaker and debater devoid of rhetorical polish. Then, after the outbreak of the Civil War, he stood before the nation to deliver his Message to Congress in Special Session on July 4, 1861, and, as a contemporary editor put it, “some of us who doubted were wrong.”
In The Eloquent President, historian Ronald White examines Lincoln’s astonishing oratory and explores his growth as a leader, a communicator, and a man of deepening spiritual conviction. Examining a different speech, address, or public letter in each chapter, White tracks the evolution of Lincoln’s rhetoric from the measured, lawyerly tones of the First Inaugural, to the imaginative daring of the 1862 Annual Message to Congress, to the haunting, immortal poetry of the Gettysburg Address.
As a speaker who appealed not to intellect alone, but also to the hearts and souls of citizens, Lincoln persuaded the nation to follow him during the darkest years of the Civil War. Through the speeches and what surrounded them–the great battles and political crises, the president’s private anguish and despair, the impact of his words on the public, the press, and the nation at war–we see the full sweep and meaning of the Lincoln presidency.
As he weighs the biblical cadences and vigorous parallel structures that make Lincoln’s rhetoric soar, White identifies a passionate religious strain that most historians have overlooked. It is White’s contention that as president Lincoln not only grew into an inspiring leader and determined commander in chief, but also embarked on a spiritual odyssey that led to a profound understanding of the relationship between human action and divine will.
Brilliantly written, boldly original in conception, The Eloquent President blends history, biography, and a deep intuitive appreciation for the quality of Lincoln’s extraordinary mind. With grace and insight, White captures the essence of the four most critical years of Lincoln’s life and makes the great words live for our time in all their power and beauty.
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RONALD C. WHITE, JR., is the author and editor of seven books, most recently Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, which was a Washington Post bestseller, a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, and a New York Times Notable Book. White earned his Ph.D. at Princeton and has taught at UCLA, Princeton Theological Seminary, Whitworth College, and Colorado College. He is currently Professor of American Intellectual and Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary and a Reader at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He has lectured on Lincoln’s eloquence at the White House, the Library of Congress, and Gettysburg. He lives with his wife, Cynthia, in La Cañada, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"WITH A TASK BEFORE ME GREATER THAN . . . WASHINGTON"
farewell address at springfield
february 11, 1861
No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have been 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 ever, 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 every where 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.
Abraham Lincoln arrived at the small brick Great Western Railway station in Springfield on February 11, 1861, prepared to travel to Washington and his inauguration as the sixteenth president of the United States. The day dawned cold and miserable, with intermittent rain dripping from the low-hanging clouds. Parked at the station was the Presidential Special, a train consisting of only two cars, an ordinary passenger coach and a baggage car, standing by to receive the president and his party. Both cars were painted a bright yellow. The grand locomotive-the L. M. Wiley, brasswork gleaming, with its huge balloon stack-hissed at the ready.
Lincoln had decided beforehand that he would offer no remarks, and the press had been so informed. After the many farewells of recent days, Lincoln believed there was no need for any more words. Newspaperman Henry Villard, a twenty-five-year-old German immigrant posted to Springfield in November by the New York Herald to report on Lincoln's daily activities after his election as president, captured a remarkable scene. "The President elect took his station in the waiting-room, and allowed his friends to pass by him and take his hand for the last time." Villard observed that Lincoln's "face was pale, and quivered with emotion so deep as to render him almost unable to utter a single word."
The ringing of the engine bell alerted Lincoln that it was time to board the train. Mary Lincoln and the two younger boys, Willie and Tad, had originally planned not to depart for several days. However, Gen. Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had suggested to Lincoln that Mary and the boys leave that evening and meet Lincoln in Indianapolis. General Scott, concerned for the president-elect's security, thought it would be safer for Lincoln if he was surrounded by his family. Robert, the Lincolns' oldest son, would travel with his father from Springfield.
As Lincoln stepped out onto the platform, he found himself surrounded by a crowd of about one thousand of his fellow citizens. Friends and neighbors crowded the platform and each side of the festively decorated train. These friends and fellow townspeople had come to say their good-byes. Despite his publicly announced intention not to speak, the crowd thronging around the rear platform encouraged their neighbor to offer some remarks.
Responding to these requests, Lincoln, after entering the second of the two cars, appeared on the rear platform of the train. He removed his beaver hat and asked for silence. He paused, struggling to contain his feelings, gathering himself to give a speech he had not intended to give.
Before leaving springfield, Abraham Lincoln had already resolved to confine his speaking as president to a few major occasions when he would have adequate time to prepare. In the three months since his election, as the storm clouds of war darkened, he had excused himself again and again from speaking about any of his positions or future policies. He did not want to say something that could be misinterpreted by foe or friend.
But how could he keep silent on this morning? Caught off guard, Lincoln spoke briefly in an uncharacteristically personal manner to friends and neighbors. Some who were present had known him for twenty years or more. Lincoln would speak only 152 words, but his words touched his audience in Springfield profoundly. In the poignancy of this moment-leaving the place where he had lived for half his life-Lincoln bared his spirit in deeply emotive language.
His farewell words at Springfield did not remain in Springfield. His remarks were printed in newspapers the next day and in Harper's Weekly Magazine. Citizens in Albany, Fort Wayne, Dover, Trenton, Providence, and countless small cities and towns were eager to know more about this gangly rail splitter from the West who was about to become their president.
Abraham lincoln had been saying his farewells to family and friends over the past weeks. As the time for their departure drew nearer, Mary Lincoln invited groups of friends to their home. These gatherings included a children's party. She wrote out the invitations to the children, cards that would be cherished by their recipients well into the twentieth century.
On January 30, Lincoln slipped away from the persistent stream of reporters and office seekers to offer a special good-bye. He traveled by train and by horse and buggy to Farmington, a small remote community in Coles County, in southern Illinois. He wanted to see his aging stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln.
Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, had died in 1818. Sarah, a widow, had come from Kentucky as Thomas Lincoln's new wife. Her great gift was to bring nurture and order to the whole family. She gave to young Abraham, a boy of ten, love and encouragement. Sarah, now seventy-three, when hearing of her stepson's nomination, feared that if he was elected, something awful would happen to him.
As he retraced his route to Springfield, Lincoln's stepmother traveled with him as far as Charleston. (In March 1830, a young Lincoln had driven a yoke of oxen pulling one of the wagons in the family move from Spencer County, Indiana, to this area of Illinois.) At an evening reception on January 31, everyone was eager to hear Lincoln speak, but he declined the invitation. Lincoln did join in with reminiscence and stories of his simpler days with folk who had known him since he was barely twenty-one.
Returning to springfield, Lincoln requested privacy. A notice appeared each day that week in the Illinois State Journal: "The present week being the last that Mr. Lincoln remains at Springfield, and it being indispensable that he should have a portion of time to himself, he will see visitors only at his office, No. 4, Johnson building, from 31?2 to 5 o'clock, P.M., each day."
Lincoln had to conclude many personal and family matters. He had rented the family home at the northeast corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets to Lucian Tilton, the retired owner of the Wabash Railroad, for $350 a year. The Lincolns sold much of their furniture. They gave their dog, Fido, to a neighbor. Mary burned heaps of old letters and papers in the rear alley.
A major task was the preparation of his inaugural address. Gov. John Wood had offered Lincoln offices on the second floor in the Illinois State House, in the center of the public square. The governor did not need the offices, as the Illinois state legislature was not in session. Lincoln accepted gladly. He set up an office in the State House and established John G. Nicolay, a former journalist and clerk to the Illinois secretary of state, as his secretary and one-man transition committee. Lincoln knew his dingy law offices would not do as a place to work on his address or to greet visitors.
Lincoln began his research for his inaugural address shortly after his election. He wanted plenty of time for research, writing, and rewriting. On November 13, only one week to the day after his election, Lincoln borrowed from the Illinois State Library the Statesman's Manual of the Constitution of the United States, volumes I and II. Lincoln refreshed his memory about the nullification controversy of 1832 and President Andrew Jackson's proclamation against nullification. Lincoln was looking for precedents or patterns. He returned the books on December 29.
Late in December, with the impending convening of the Illinois state legislature on January 7, it became necessary to give up the second-floor space on the southeast corner of the State House. Joel Johnson, owner of an office building, offered Lincoln two offices on the second floor of Johnson's Building, across the street from the Chenery House.
By January the torrent of old friends, advisers, newspaper reporters, and office seekers pouring into Springfield became relentless. Lincoln could discover no privacy by day or night. These new offices, however, were not the place to work on an inaugural address.
He next accepted an offer from Clark Moulton Smith, his brother-in-law, to use a room on the third floor of his store as his writing space. Lincoln found the privacy he was seeking, as the room could be entered only through the private office of Smith, in the rear of his storeroom. Here Lincoln closeted himself for the serious work of writing. Day after day he wrote and revised at an old merchant's desk with a slanting front and plenty of pigeonholes.
Later in January, Lincoln asked William H. Herndon, his law partner, to supply him with copies of two speeches he much admired. Lincoln had first read Daniel Webster's "Reply to Robert Hayne" when he was a young man living in New Salem. In 1830, after Senator Hayne of South Carolina had defended the right of nullification on the floor of the Senate, Senator Webster of Massachusetts replied to him, closing with the memorable words "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable." Lincoln also asked for a copy of Sen. Henry Clay's speech in support of the Compromise of 1850, an affirmation at the end of Clay's life of his...
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