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Author InterviewRonald C. White, Jr., Author
The Eloquent President
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words
Random House, January 2005
480 pages, hardcover; $26.95
Among American presidents, Abraham Lincoln has a long-standing reputation for being the most gifted speaker and writer. Largely self-taught, he polished his considerable native abilities throughout his life. In this word portrait, Ronald C. White, Jr. selects examples from Lincoln's presidential speeches to reveal his development from the tight, legal style of the First Inaugural Address to the prophetic intensity of the Second Inaugural Address.
Photo copyright Cynthia C. White
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words has been chosen as the Main Selection of the History Book Club for March 2005 and the Alternate Selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club for March. This book follows Dr. White's first Lincoln title, Lincoln's Greatest Speech, published in 2002 as an exposition of President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.
He has authored several other books besides Lincoln titles and has taught at colleges and seminaries on both coasts. At the time of this interview he was Professor of American Intellectual and Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary as well as a Fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He and his wife Cynthia live in Pasadena, California.
ALO: How did you get started in the Lincoln field?
Ronald C. White, Jr: I attended the Lincoln Exhibit at the Huntington Library in 1993. I was teaching American Intellectual History at UCLA. I decided to offer a seminar on "Abraham Lincoln and the American Experience" and to bring my students to the Huntington for a hands-on experience of the exhibit. The students enjoyed it and so I offered it three times.
Although my focus on the Second Inaugural Address was very specific, I wanted to set it within the wider context of all of Lincoln's writings and speeches so I read many of them, wishing I had time to ponder these more deeply and see their interrelationships. I used different collections of documents in my courses and they all have their place. But I and my students found ourselves somewhat frustrated by the very brief introductions to these documents. I wanted the student to know that there was a life between the documents. How did Lincoln see these? So from this came the idea of trying to put these documents both in context, setting them in the political and social history of the Civil War, and also in sequence.
I came to believe that Lincoln was really a person who was still developing as a speaker. He went to Washington as a person with a reputation as a stump speaker and as a debater. What I discovered was there were many skeptics who did not think he could pull it off in the different realm of the presidency and the different kinds of speeches that he would be called to make there. So I wanted to trace out his presidential speech-making, and see how he developed from the First Inaugural to the Second Inaugural.
ALO: Did you have any surprises along the way?
Ronald C. White, Jr: I had a number of surprises. First, I was surprised again by how Lincoln was uncomfortable speaking extemporaneously. One of his friends even used the word "frightened." He often didn't do very well at it. On his trip from Springfield to Washington he apologized over and over again that he had misspoken or said something he shouldn't have. To be sure, part of that was he didn't want to divulge his plans, which were still in the making, if war came. But he was nervous when he did not have time to prepare.
A second surprise was that he spoke so seldom. He spoke a little more than 100 times as President and most of these were brief remarks and responses. He spoke very few times compared to any twentieth century or twenty-first century president.
Another continuing surprise was the remarkable development in his religious thought and sensibilities in the Civil War which come to fruition in the Second Inaugural. But there are evidences of this development in other speeches. I decided to include in the book the one speech that he never gave, which was his own private meditation, which he never thought anyone would ever see. It was found after his death. I thought this was a clue, not only to the way he wrote speeches, he wrote a lot of these little notes to himself, but also to his developing religious consciousness. I think his religious faith has sometimes been discounted or set aside with the assumption that he was saying these things for public consumption. His theological thinking revealed in the Meditation on the Divine Will was never meant to be seen by anyone.
ALO: Do you know why authors haven't fully developed this area?
Ronald C. White, Jr: I think that all of the work that has been coming forward on Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and Adams has helped us understand the role of the Enlightenment in the Revolutionary era. Some of these people would scarcely want to be called traditional Christians. Scholars have used the label Deism. Lincoln has recently been framed within the Enlightenment. Allen Guelzo makes this point well.
But it would be a mistake to simply oppose the Enlightenment and religion. Lincoln can also be understood by appreciating the influences of the Second Great Awakening. It helped shape the modern America as a religious nation. Lincoln and the Republican Party tried to tap into that religious sensibility.
ALO: How did "eloquent" become the main part of your book title?
Ronald C. White, Jr: It was a word I found used a great deal in the nineteenth century and used about Lincoln. I employed Aristotle in the book -- not suggesting that Lincoln read Aristotle -- as the measure of what was successful rhetoric. I am arguing that Lincoln, although he was a lawyer and very much believed in rational logic, came to understand that persuasion was more than the audience agreeing with your argument. For him, the persuasion came as the audience trusted his character, the Greek word ethos.
In listening to Lincoln's speeches you can hear an evolution. The First Inaugural is an attempt of a lawyer to convince people by rational argument with an appeal to the Constitution. There's nothing wrong with that, but Lincoln came to discover that persuasive rhetoric was not simply an appeal to argument. At Gettysburg and in the Second Inaugural he moves to the dimension of persuasion that is rooted in a much deeper kind of emotive way of speaking.
This is why his later speeches are better -- deeper, wider, and broader -- than the earlier speeches. They're also leaner and tauter; less is more. The very early Lincoln, the speech to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield is a wonderful speech, but there's much more verbosity in it that you don't find in the later Lincoln. Not unexpected of a young man speaking. He was a much more refined, much more self-disciplined speaker at the end.
ALO: How would you characterize some of Lincoln's thinking processes?
Ronald C. White, Jr: What I wanted to reveal in the book was the private Lincoln behind the public Lincoln. I knew I had to contend with the myth, which is so persistent yet today, that he wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of the flap of an envelope on the train. Somehow he was this untutored genius who simply had a gift for lyrical words. I wanted to show that this was a man who worked very hard on his speeches. He revised and edited and revised again. Even the Collected Works edited by Roy P. Basler doesn't fully bring out how many times he went over his work.
What's quite remarkable is that late in the process of writing my book, Daniel Stowell of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, volunteered -- he and his entire staff -- to prepare the appendices. So, the appendices of the book are quite complete and in some cases show two and three versions of speeches, with strikeouts and additions. The appendices show where Seward made his addition, where Lincoln accepted Seward's addition, where Lincoln rejected Seward's addition, and all of this shows a very careful, thoughtful person.
If one compares this to the present we need to remember that Presidents Clinton and Bush have employed seven to nine presidential speechwriters. We wouldn't even expect the modern president to take that kind of time and care, but I think it's that time and care that produces the eloquence of Lincoln.
ALO: What kind of impact did Lincoln's reading have on what he said?
Ronald C. White, Jr: It made a difference not only in what he said but the way he said it, or the cadence of saying it. For example, I think the Bible and Shakespeare were both very profound in influencing him. The Bible was so both in the content and the cadence. I think Shakespeare, Elizabethan language, also were very important for him. He was also influenced by some of the poets -- Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Oliver Wendell Holmes.
If you ask the question, "Who was the last president who was doing that kind of reading," I think you'd have to go back to John F. Kennedy. He brought that to his speaking. JFK could very easily spin off a line of poetry in a press conference. We don't expect that now and we don't get it.
ALO: Would an audience today even catch that?
Ronald C. White, Jr: I think Lincoln's original audience caught it -- the Biblical quotations in the Second Inaugural. His audience might catch Shakespeare more, also. So you could ask the modern question, "Whatever happened to eloquence?" You could say it's a commentary, not simply about George W. Bush or John Kerry, but it's a commentary about the audience. You have to have appreciation on both sides.
The other major point I wanted to make in my book was that Lincoln wrote for the ear; today we write for the eye. So often I'm aware that there's a teleprompter in front of the president and that he's reading this address, whereas Lincoln spoke his address. That's why he spoke so slowly. The copies we have are underlined. These were cues to him, literally stage cues, as to how to say this for the ear. I used various newspaper reports to determine the time of his his addresses. I came to the conclusion that he spoke only 105-115 words a minute, whereas we speak about 150 words a minute.
I believe that some Lincoln impersonators speak much too rapidly. They do not speak the way Abraham Lincoln spoke. He spoke extremely slowly. Lincoln often spoke outdoors and he wanted people to hear what he had to say.
ALO: What about the interconnected character of Lincoln's speeches?
Ronald C. White, Jr: In reading Garry Wills's marvelous book on Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wills asks the question, "What are the sources of Lincoln's speeches?" I came to the conclusion that Lincoln's sources are mostly Lincoln. In the First Inaugural, for example, he does quite an unusual thing -- he quotes himself. He gives a long quotation from a previous speech.
The Meditation on the Divine Will becomes the foundation for the Second Inaugural. These speeches are all intertwined. Lincoln at one point was told that he couldn't use a certain metaphor, that it wasn't dignified enough, but about two weeks later he wrote a letter and used the same metaphor and said something like, "I've been told that this metaphor isn't very acceptable, but ..." Here's a man who is continually in dialogue with himself, writing notes to himself, fragments as we call them in the Collected Works, and there's a continuity between speeches that we may not have clearly seen.
ALO: You mentioned the myth about Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Are there other myths which interfere with our understanding of Lincoln's speeches?
Ronald C. White, Jr: One was that the Gettysburg Address was not well received. Ward Hill Lamon, who had been the Marshal in charge of the ceremonies that day, and wanted to be proud of his closeness to Lincoln, invented the story that Lincoln told him on the platform, "That speech won't scour." But we're not sure that Lincoln ever really said that. If you look at the newspaper reports of the day, to be sure, initially, the papers emphasized Edward Everett's major address. But within a few days, or in a week or two, the Gettysburg Address was beginning to be esteemed for what it was.
I'm trying to suggest in the book that some of Lincoln's other speeches were quite well known in their own day and deserve to be known in our day. For example, the letter to Conkling or what I've retitled "The Letter to the Springfield Rally," is a gem. I think if that speech had been said in person, he telegrammed it and asked his friend James Conkling to read it, it might be ranked alongside his most famous speeches.
Another important speech is Lincoln's little Farewell Address at Springfield. I decided to include this because he was the president-elect and because it sets in place a variety of themes that will begin to be worked out in the next four years.
ALO: Did Lincoln think out the Farewell Address beforehand?
Ronald C. White, Jr: That's a good question. He had told the press beforehand that he would not be giving any remarks. So I'm persuaded that he gave the remarks under the sense of obligation to the thousand people who turned out on this rainy, dreary morning. In the railroad car afterwards he sat down to write it out. Some have made a point of the fact that what the newspapermen wrote down and what Lincoln wrote down were different. I still think it had an extemporaneous character to it.
I wonder also whether he would have been so emotional, or given way to such personal expression, in a prepared speech. People were moved to tears. He was about moved to tears as he realized the emotion of the moment. He was uncharacteristically, for that point in his life, emotional in his speaking.
ALO: Did you have to leave out any speeches you wish you could have included in the book?
Ronald C. White, Jr: I thought about adding a chapter on his address at the Sanitary Fair in April 1864 in Baltimore where he has a wonderful line about the definition of liberty. I also thought of including his remarks -- I allude to them in the epilogue -- when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in January 1865. He talked about the amendment being a "king's cure for all the evils." But that was one of those speeches where we only have a newspaper reporter's words and it doesn't read quite like Lincoln might have said it.
I also thought of including his Message to Congress in December 1864. I had some tough choices. I wanted to write a book which was accessible to a wide audience. My one concern was that my analysis would become too detailed or that the book would become too long. These were the sort of things I was wrestling with as I wrote it.
ALO: What about some of the letters of condolence?
Ronald C. White, Jr: In a sense, all my chapters were about speeches, so I didn't include any letters. There are two letters in the book, but they are what we would call "public letters." The Reply to Greeley was really a public letter. The letter to the Springfield rally was read as if it were a speech.
There have been and there will be books on Lincoln the writer; I was trying to focus more on Lincoln the speaker. Not that there's a hard and fast distinction, but I think there's a distinction which is often missed. I make the point in the preface that Nicolay and Hay said in their biography that Lincoln would have been surprised if he would have been remembered as a man of letters. We often do remember him as a man of letters. But Lincoln would not have been surprised, Hay and Nicolay say, if he had been remembered as a speaker.
I believe that a public address in its best sense is interaction with the audience. A sermon simply cannot be read apart from the congregation. Today people write sermons and write speeches that are meant to be read, but I do not think this was what Lincoln was doing.
ALO: Would you say that he had a more interactive approach?
Ronald C. White, Jr: Yes, and this partly grew from his stump speaking and his debates where people would interject with a comment or a question, and you had to be ready to answer it. And therefore I decided to include, especially in the chapter from Springfield to Washington, the remarks of the reporters where it would say "applause" or "laughter," because there was interaction going on. He spoke to a real audience.
I discovered was that one reason he came to Gettysburg and other places early was he wanted to walk around and talk to people and listen to people. Before his Cooper Union Address, which is not a subject in my book, he excused himself from dinner to keep revising it. It was not that he was slovenly or that he hadn't worked on it for a long time, but now he was at the place, and now he had heard some things, perhaps at dinner, and now he wanted to revise it. It's not that he was putting it together at the last minute; the point was that he was listening to what people were saying.
ALO: Does this goes along with Lincoln having a "meditative" personality?
Ronald C. White, Jr: Yes, this again is a way to characterize him: meditative, and I would even use the word "brooding." Again, sadly, in a sense, our modern presidents don't even have time to be meditative. They just go, it seems to me, from one action to one speech to one meeting to the next. And so does their audience.
ALO: It's hard to imagine how someone in Lincoln's position managed to get out what he did.
Ronald C. White, Jr: And to remember how many hours each day he literally held "open house" for people to come and talk to him. It wasn't that he was a recluse, writing these speeches. He was writing speeches after doing all these very public things -- he had to find time to write. But there would be moments, and I describe several of them, when he would let the word out to his secretaries, "All right, for the next several weeks, I don't want to see anybody except my Cabinet officers -- I'm working on the special Message to Congress for July 4, 1861" -- so he really took the task seriously.
ALO: How do you regard those messages to Congress?
Ronald C. White, Jr: They are still worth reading today. Again, I tried to make the point, and Daniel Stowell prevailed upon me, to include the entire message in the appendix. Even though the message includes a lot of information that probably was passed on to Lincoln from Cabinet members, Daniel persuaded me to see what makes it all the more remarkable are all the rhetorical gems which Lincoln inserted. They usually come at the end of the annual messages.
Today we have the State of the Union. They're usually laundry lists of this, that and the other, but almost none of them ever rise to the brilliance of Lincoln's annual messages ... with passages such as, "The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."
ALO: Didn't he have the advantage of knowing most of the people in Congress?
Ronald C. White, Jr: Yes, but he had the disadvantage, which I'm sure he must have chafed under, and that was the message would be read by a clerk in the House and a clerk in the Senate. He didn't have the opportunity that came again into the American political tradition only with Woodrow Wilson for a modern president to speak that annual message or what became known as the State of the Union Address.
ALO: Do you have any other comments you'd like to share?
Ronald C. White, Jr: I think that this book is what my editor has called "an alternative biography." It's another way of approaching Lincoln -- not simply the private Lincoln or the public Lincoln or the political Lincoln or the Commander- in-Chief Lincoln. We're all aware of these Lincoln documents, but I don't think we've quite had the story of the man and the method of how these documents came into being. That's what I've been trying to do in this book.
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