The Washington Post
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Wordsby Ronald C. White
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… See more details below
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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The Eloquent President
By Ronald C. White, Jr.
Random HouseRonald C. White, Jr.
All right 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 ofonly 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 love of the Union. Clay of Kentucky was, in the words of Lincoln's eulogy of "the Great Compromiser," delivered on July 6, 1852, "my beau ideal of a statesman." Lincoln said that "Mr. Clay's eloquence" proceeded "from great sincerity and a thorough conviction, in the speaker of the justice and importance of his cause." The man from Springfield could have been describing his own eloquence nearly ten years later.
A third venue for writing developed as an unexpected consequence of the arrival of a visiting artist. Sculptor Thomas D. Jones arrived in Springfield from Cincinnati on Christmas Day at 6 p.m. Jones, having already executed busts of Henry Clay, Gen. Zachary Taylor, and Gen. Winfield Scott, came with letters of commendation from two of his most recent subjects, Salmon P. Chase and Thomas Ewing. On December 26, Lincoln met Jones at 9 a.m. and agreed to pose for a bust.
Within a couple of days Jones set up his modeling stand and clay in a temporary studio on the top floor of the St. Nicholas Hotel. Jones was seeking a place with the best light and as far removed as possible from the increasing noise of the comings and goings of preinaugural Springfield. Lincoln agreed to come each morning for a series of one-hour sittings.
Lincoln used this time to read his growing daily mail and to write the speeches for his journey to Washington. Jones described Lincoln as writing while sitting with his legs crossed, "using one knee as a writing table." Lincoln wrote with a small portfolio and ample amounts of writing paper. Jones delighted in sharpening Lincoln's Fabers, an excellent brand of pencil that Lincoln used for his writing and rewriting. Jones observed that Lincoln always had copies of his own published speeches next to him for ready reference. From time to time Lincoln would ask the sculptor if he could read the latest version to him. Lincoln said he believed he could edit best by both hearing and reading a speech. He was intensely interested in the sound of the words.
Jones, who would remain in Springfield until the summer to complete his work, thought the emerging bust a great achievement. Lincoln joked that Jones was producing his "mud head." Jones believed that photographs of Lincoln always failed to portray "the ideas of the man." As the day for Lincoln's departure approached, Jones asked his subject for "the kindness to tell what you think of the result thus far." Lincoln laid down his writing materials, examined the bust for a considerable time, and finally replied, "I think it looks very much like the critter."
On wednesday, February 6, the Lincolns said farewell in a formal levee, or reception, in the first-floor parlors of their home, at the northeast corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets. An invitation was printed in the Illinois State Journal on Tuesday and Wednesday, stating, "Mr. Lincoln will be pleased to receive his friends on Wednesday evening, at his residence." Lincoln did not restrict the reception to special associates or political allies, but extended an open invitation to "his friends." Over seven hundred guests, many of them waiting twenty to thirty minutes to get to the front door, joined an evening of mixed merriment and sadness that lasted until midnight.
Anna Ridgely, a nineteen-year-old girl who attended the reception, recorded her varied reactions to Lincoln in her diary. She was the daughter of Nicholas H. Ridgely, a prominent banker and one of the wealthiest persons in Springfield. Ridgely was a former Whig who became a Democrat. He did not vote for Lincoln in the presidential election. After Lincoln's election, Anna confided to her diary, "We were disappointed, for we had hoped that such a man as he, without the great knowledge of state affairs, without any polish of manners, would not be sent to be the representative of this great nation."
Now, three months later, she and her family came to the Lincoln home for the farewell reception. Having earlier expressed her displeasure with Lincoln's election, she now wrote in her diary her impressions of Lincoln. "Mr. L really looked handsome to me his whiskers are a great improvement and he has such a pleasant smile I could not but admire him."
On his final day in Springfield, Sunday, February 10, Abraham Lincoln wandered down to his law office, at 105 South Fifth Street, to meet Herndon. Entering their second-floor office, Lincoln threw himself down on the old sofa one last time. After reminiscing about old times and talking about how to complete unfinished legal business, Lincoln made a request that the signboard that swung on rusty hinges at the foot of the stairway should stay. He said to Billy, "Let it hang there undisturbed." Lincoln added, "If I live I'm coming back some time, and then we'll go right on practicing law as if nothing had ever happened.&
Excerpted from The Eloquent President by Ronald C. White, Jr. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
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.
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