Lincoln did not disappoint. The account of one journalist in attendance, Horace White, highlights how Lincoln expressed his convictions powerfully, with argument, facts, and rhythm:
It was a warmish day in early October, and Mr. Lincoln was in his shirt sleeves when he stepped on the platform. I observed that, although awkward, he was not in the least embarrassed. He began in a slow and hesitating manner, but without any mistakes of language, dates, or facts. It was evident that he had mastered his subject, that he knew what he was going to say, and that he knew he was right.
Lincoln had thoroughly prepared for his speech. He had carefully researched the history of the federal government’s involvement in restricting slavery from territories, beginning with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. He had thought through the arguments that his opponents would offer, and he understood the core of the disagreement. He had bolstered his own conviction, and he was prepared to share his conviction with his audience. His rhetoric was powerful, prepared, studied, and yet not artificial – it allowed him to speak from his heart in a way that reached into the hearts of his audience. White remembered years later: “His speaking went to the heart because it came from the heart.”
Lincoln understood his own mind, he understood the mind of his opponents, he understood his audience. The art of rhetoric trains young leaders to prepare for speeches by asking themselves questions that will give them an understanding, not just of ideas, but also of people and what makes them embrace ideas in a lasting way. At the heart of his Peoria speech, he recalled his audience to what he called “the ancient faith,” the conviction about the central principles of the Declaration of Independence, along with the deep American pride in being examples to the world of freedom:
I hate [indifference to slavery] because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
He deeply believed in the greatness of America and her principles, and believed his audience did, too. In this way, he moved their minds and hearts in a lasting way. According to White:
I have heard celebrated orators who could start thunders of applause without changing any man's opinion. Mr. Lincoln's eloquence was of the higher type, which produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself. His listeners felt that he believed every word he said, and that, like Martin Luther, he would go to the stake rather than abate one jot or tittle of it. In such transfigured moments as these he was the type of the ancient Hebrew prophet as I learned that character at Sunday-school in my childhood.
This is the power of rhetoric, a power that has belonged to the most influential leaders of times past. Aristotle, a philosopher who also wrote one of the masterpieces on rhetorical training, believed that speakers, to govern men, must know men. They must not only thoroughly understand the emotions that can influence the heart, but also the many different ideas that men have of what is important. He devoted ten chapters to detailing the numerous different kinds and causes of emotions, and other chapters discussing all the different kinds of men and the ways they think about what makes for happiness, for what is advantageous, honorable, and just.
Plutarch finds in Pericles, the great Athenian leader, a preeminent example of a master of words who used words to govern the souls of men:
He alone, as a great master...making that use of hopes and fears, as his two chief rudders, with the one to check the career of their confidence at any time, with the other to raise them up and cheer them when under any discouragement, plainly showed by this, that rhetoric, or the art of speaking, is, in Plato's language, the government of the souls of men, and that her chief business is to address the affections and passions, which are as it were the strings and keys to the soul, and require a skilful and careful touch to be played on as they should be.
Now, the art of rhetoric being available for the enforcing either of truth or falsehood, who will dare to say that truth in the person of its defenders is to take its stand unarmed against falsehood? For example, that those who are trying to persuade men of what is false are to know how to introduce their subject, so as to put the hearer into a friendly, or attentive, or teachable frame of mind, while the defenders of the truth shall be ignorant of that art? That the former are to tell their falsehoods briefly, clearly, and plausibly, while the latter shall tell the truth m such a way that it is tedious to listen to, hard to understand, and, in fine, not easy to believe it? Since, then, the faculty of eloquence is available for both sides, and is of very great service in the enforcing either of wrong or right, why do not good men study to engage it on the side of truth, when bad men use it to obtain the triumph of wicked and worthless causes, and to further injustice and error?
This year I have led a group interested in politics through an analysis of the speeches of great leaders. We have looked at Pericles’ Funeral Oration and compared it with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; we read Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses, Adolf Hitler’s Proclamation to the German People, Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech, and finished by comparing the inaugural addresses of our two most recent Presidents. We have considered how each understood the occasion and opportunity of his speech (Kairos), worked to establish his audience’s trust (Ethos), and drew upon what the audiences believed was important to move their minds and hearts (Logos and Pathos).
The power of rhetoric as an essential tool for a political leader is a recent discovery for me. I was fortunate to receive what was called a “college prep” public high school education, which included extensive study in Latin, mythology, history, and serious English literature. But what passed for rhetoric was a two-hour semester course called Time to Speak, which neither introduced us to great speeches of the past nor trained us in the demanding ways of the art, but simply encouraged our creativity and self-expression. As a result, it became a regular joke among students. It also left us feeling uninspired and powerless to bring about any real change in society.
The many classical liberal arts schools around our country are forming a new generation of students who love what is true, good, and beautiful. We want them to have the confidence that they can inspire the minds and hearts of their fellow Church members and citizens. For this reason, I hope the ancient art of rhetoric has a prominent place in the classical revival of education.