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Abraham Lincoln as a SpeakerHave you ever wondered what Lincoln looked or sounded like when he gave a public speech? He spent many years polishing his speaking abilities, from his youth to his presidency. His life in politics gave him hundreds of opportunities, as did his 25-year law career. Below you will see a small sample of those moments, as mentioned by his contemporaries. Please note that newspaper accounts appeared one or more days after a speech.
AppearanceMr. Lincoln's person was ungainly. He was six feet four inches in height; a little stooped in the shoulders; his legs and arms were long; his feet and hands large; his forehead was high. His head was over the average size. His eyes were gray. His face and forehead were wrinkled even in his youth. They deepened with age, 'as streams their channels deeper wear.' Generally he was a very sad man, and his countenance indicated it. But when he warmed up all sadness vanished, his face was radiant and glowing, and almost gave expression to his thoughts before his tongue would utter them.
--Joshua Speed in Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln
Mr. Lincoln has a very tall and thin figure, with an intellectual face, showing a searching mind, and a cool judgment.
--Boston (Massachusetts) Daily Advertiser, September 14, 1848
Abram Lincoln is a dark complexioned man, of a very tall figure, and so exceedingly 'well preserved' that he would not be taken for more than thirty-eight, though he is rising of fifty years of age.
--Cincinnati (Ohio) Daily Commercial, September 17, 1859
LogicThe address was one of the clearest, most logical, argumentative and convincing discourses on the Nebraska question to which we have listened.
--Quincy (Illinois) Whig, November 3, 1854
Every point he touched upon was elucidated by the clearness of his logic, and with his keen blade of satire he laid bare the revolting features of policy of the pseudo-Democracy.
--Peoria (Illinois) Weekly Republican, July 25, 1856
His manner is neither fanciful nor rhetorical, but logical. His thoughts are strong thoughts, and are strongly joined together. He is a close reasoner, and has the faculty of making himself clearly understood.
--Galena (Illnois) North-Western Gazette, July 1856
MannerismsAbout the year 1832 or 1833 Mr. Lincoln made his first effort at public speaking. A debating club of which James Rutledge was President was organized and held regular meetings -- as he arose to speak his tall form towered above the little assembly. Both hands were thrust down deep in the pockets of his pantaloons. A perceptible smile at once lit up the faces of the audience for all anticipated the relation of some humorous story. But he opened up the discussion in splendid style to the infinite astonishment of his friends. As he warmed with his subject his hands would forsake his pockets and would enforce his ideas by awkward gestures; but would very soon seek their easy resting place.
--Robert B. Rutledge letter, ca. November 1, 1866
On rising to address the jury or the crowd he quite generally placed his hands behind him, the back part of his left hand resting in the palm of his right hand. As he proceeded and grew warmer, he moved his hands to the front of his person, generally interlocking his fingers and running one thumb around the other. Sometimes his hands, for a short while, would hang by his side. In still growing warmer, as he proceeded in his address, he used his hands -- especially and generally his right hand -- in his gestures; he used his head a great deal in speaking, throwing or jerking or moving it now here and now there, now in this position and now in that, in order to be more emphatic, to drive the idea home. Mr. Lincoln never beat the air, never sawed space with his hands, never acted for stage effect: was cool, careful, earnest, sincere, truthful, fair, self-possessed, not insulting, not dictatorial; was pleasing, good-natured; had great strong naturalness of look, pose, and act; was clear in his ideas, simple in his words, strong, terse, and demonstrative; he spoke and acted to convince individuals and masses; he used in his gestures his right hand, sometimes shooting out that long bony forefinger of his to dot an idea or to express a thought, resting his thumb on his middle finger. Bear in mind that he did not gesticulate much and yet it is true that every organ of his body was in motion and acted with ease, elegance, and grace, so it all looked to me.
--William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887
Partisan OutlooksNews reports in Lincoln's time were heavily influenced by political parties. Compare these opposite reactions to the same speech Lincoln gave in Monmouth, Illinois, on October 11, 1858:
Of his speech I will only say that it lasted three hours, and that during all that time the whole audience seemed perfectly wrapt in attention, and that in power, pathos, and eloquence, I have never heard it equalled.
--Chicago (Illinois) Press & Tribune, October 15, 1858
His whole speech was a personal attack on Douglas and Democrats. He dodged the issues before the people, and failed entirely to discuss the principles dividing the two parties. It was not marked by the "abilities of a Statesman, or the dignity of a would be Senator," and was coldly received by the small crowd present.
--Monmouth (Illinois) Review, October 15, 1858
PersuasionIt would be doing injustice to his speech to endeavor to give a sketch of it. It was replete with good sense, sound reasoning, and irresistible argument, and spoken with that perfect command of manner and matter which so eminently distinguishes the Western orators.
--Lowell (Massachusetts) Daily Journal, Sept. 18, 1848
A large meeting was held in Dearborn Park on Saturday evening to hear the speech of Mr. Lincoln, and we have never seen an audience held for so long a time in the open air to listen to an argumentative speech. The speaker was calm, clear and forcible, constantly referring to indisputable facts in our political history, and drawing conclusions from them in favor of supporting the Anti-Nebraska platform and nominees, that were unanswerable.
--Chicago (Illinois) Democratic Press, July 21, 1856
We shall not undertake to tell what he said to the people, but we do not hesitate to say that his arguments on the leading issue between the parties were unanswerable; and we wish every man in the State could hear the same.
--Paris (Illinois) Prairie Beacon, August 8, 1856
How any reasonable man can hear one of Mr. Lincoln's speeches without being converted to Republicanism, is something that we can't account for.
--Bloomington (Illinois) Pantagraph, September 3, 1858
Mr. Lincoln spoke nearly two hours and we believe he would have held his audience had he spoken all night.
--Dover (New Hampshire) Inquirer, March 8, 1860
PowerI have heard or read all Mr. Lincoln's great speeches and I give it as my opinion on my best judgment that the Bloomington speech was the grand effort of his life. Heretofore and up to this moment he had simply argued the slavery question on grounds of policy -- on the grounds of what is called the statesman's grounds, never reaching the question of the radical and eternal right. Now he was newly baptized and freshly born: he had the fervor of a new convert: the smothered flame broke out: enthusiasm unusual to him blazed up: his eyes were aglow with an inspiration: he felt Justice: his heart was alive to the right: his sympathies -- unusually deep to him -- burst forth, and he stood before the throne of the eternal right in presence of his God & then and there unburthened his penitential, and fired soul. This speech was fresh -- new -- genuine -- odd -- original -- filled with fervor -- not unmixed with a divine enthusiasm, his head breathing out through his tender heart its Truths -- its sense of Right and its feeling of the good and for the good. This speech was full of fire & energy & force. It was logic -- it was pathos -- it was enthusiasm. It was Justice -- Equity -- Truth -- Right & the Good set ablaze by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong. It was hard -- heavy -- knotty -- gnarly -- edged and heated.
--William H. Herndon lecture, December 27, 1865
He had not spoken ten minutes until everybody was carried away. We forgot all about his looks. Exeter was full of people of culture. It was a place to which people moved when they retired from active life. The audience was one of educated, cultivated people. I never heard such applause in that hall as Mr. Lincoln received that night. .... Every part fitted into the whole argument perfectly. As I recall it, the Exeter speech followed closely the lines of the Cooper Union address, which was on slavery. I suppose it had been carefully prepared. I know it captured all of us.
--Marshall Snow in Intimate Memories of Lincoln
PreparationMr. Lincoln thought his speeches out on his feet walking in the streets: he penned them in small scraps -- sentences, & paragraphs, depositing them in his hat for safety. When fully finished, he would recopy, and could always repeat easily by heart -- so well thoughted, shotted, and matured were they.
--William H. Herndon lecture, January 24, 1866
UnderstandingRead Mr. Lincoln's speeches--letters--messages and proclamations-- read his whole record in his actual life, and you can see that he had a good understanding--that faculty that knows & comprehends things in their relations. He understood and fully comprehended himself, and what he did and why he did it better than most living or dead men.
--William H. Herndon lecture, December 15, 1865
VoiceLincoln's voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered.
--William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887
But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.
--Abram Bergen in Intimate Memories of Lincoln
The [second] inaugural address was received in most profound silence. Every word was clear and audible as the ringing and somewhat shrill tones of Lincoln's voice sounded over the vast concourse.
--Noah Brooks in Washington in Lincoln's Time
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