Flights of Language, Rhetoric of Leadership

Abraham Lincoln’s Words

For Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, words mattered. “Words are the only things that last for ever,” said Churchill in 1938. “The most tremendous monuments or prodigies of engineering crumble under the hand of time.”1 Words endured. Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard wrote that Lincoln was a “student of… ‘the power of words,’ and used them for no other purpose than to express his meaning.” Lincoln did not use words for ostentation, noted Stoddard: “Even in conversation with men whose superior culture and information he frankly acknowledged, or for whose moral dignity or great achievements he professed the utmost respect, Mr. Lincoln was free from that embarrassment which at times is so painfully manifest in weaker men.2

Abraham Lincoln understood the power words. He understood that they could be abused, especially when emotions were aroused. Like Churchill, he sought to find the exact word to express his meaning.3 He was a master of the unsent letter, written in heat and aggravation and then filed away. He was the master of historical research and religious undertones. Lincoln scholar Paul M. Angle observed that “with less than a year of formal schooling, and that of a character which today would be laughed out of our schools, he became one of the great masters of the English language.”4 The laboratory for Lincoln’s speaking skills had been the courtrooms of the Eighth Judicial District in Illinois. Judge Thomas Drummond recalled: “With a voice by no means pleasing, and, indeed, when excited, in its shrill tones sometimes almost disagreeable; without any of the personal graces of the orator; without much in the outward man indicating superiority of intellect; without great quickness of perception, — still, his mind was so vigorous, his comprehension so exact and clear, and his judgments so sure, that he easily mastered the intricacies of his profession, and became one of the ablest reasoners and most impressive speakers at our bar. With a probity of character known to all, with an intuitive insight into the human heart, with a clearness of statement which was itself an argument, with an uncommon power and facility of illustration, often, it is true, of a plain and homely kind, and with that sincerity and earnestness of manner to carry conviction, he was perhaps one of the most successful jury lawyers we have ever had in the State. He always tried a case fairly and honestly. He never intentionally misrepresented the testimony of a witness or the arguments of an opponent. He met both squarely, and, if he could not explain the one or answer the other, substantially admitted it.5

Lincoln honed his speaking skills in the two decades before his renowned 1854 Peoria speech against the extension of slavery. Attorney Henry C. Whitney wrote: “Mr. Lincoln could not talk for effect; he could not talk to nothing nor about nothing. He must be argumentative or nothing. He must have something to prove and somebody to convince.”6 Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “Lincoln first distinguished himself and earned recognition as a standout stump speaker. His eventual prominence and leadership in his political party was squarely based on such abilities, not only to speak extemporaneously on the stump but also to put down live opponents in debate on the floor of the legislature and elsewhere. For more than twenty years before the debates with Douglas, he matched words with the best orators of his time and place – W. L. D. Ewing, George Forquer, Usher F. Linder, the other John C. Calhoun, and Douglas himself – and was acknowledged by contemporaries on all sides as a superior speaker.”7

For both Lincoln and Churchill, public speaking was an evolutionary effort. The early Lincoln was much more ornate than the terse Lincoln of the presidency. “At sixty I am altering my method of speaking, largely under Randolph’s tuition, and now talk to the House of Commons with garrulous unpremeditated flow. They seem delighted. But what a mystery the art of public speaking!” wrote Churchill to Clementine in 1934. “There is apparently nothing in the literary effect I have sought for forty years!”8 Like Lincoln, Churchill looked for the right word to express the right thought. Historian David Dilks wrote that Churchill “pointed constantly to the importance of exactitude in language, a point which he illustrated by recounting the unfortunate consequences for the man who in giving instructions to his surgeon forgot the distinction between circumcision and castration.”9

President Lincoln warned against rhetorical arson and he himself was careful not to inflame passion. “In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity,”wrote Lincoln in his Second Annual Message to Congress in December 1862.10 Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White, Jr., wrote: “Lincoln used his annual messages as an opportunity to speak through Congress to the American people. Of all his regular and special messages to Congress in his four years as president, the annual of 1862 rose to the zenith of his presidential eloquence, ‘As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.’”11

More than Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Abraham Lincoln spoke with his body. Lincoln scholar Gary Ecelbarger wrote: “Lincoln’s body language bespoke a strange combination of confidence and awkwardness. He leaned forward as he spoke, as if on an incline toward his audience. He began his speeches with his arms tucked behind his back, the knuckles of the left hand nestled into the palm of the right.”12 Attorney Charles Zane observed of Lincoln: “In public speaking he used few gestures and he was never vehement; he always expressed his earnestness in his utterances and in his countenance; once, on returning from a meeting where he had spoken for an hour. I said: ‘You must have been about worn out.’ He said: ‘No, I can speak three or four hours at a time without feeling weary.’”13 During the Civil War, Lincoln seldom spoke for very long – never for the one, two and three-hour speeches he sometimes gave before the Civil War. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson notes that Lincoln’s oratory was noted for its “clarity, plainness of diction, directness, declarative, interrogatories, seizing the rhetorical initiative, and maintaining argumentative momentum.”14

Prime Minister Churchill, however, gave two-hour speeches before the House of Commons during World War II. MP Harold Nicolson observed of Churchill answering questions in the House: “He rubs the palms of his hands with five fingers extended up and down the front of his coat, searching for the right phrase, indicating cautious selection, conveying almost medical poise.”15 Churchill had been practicing the art of public speaking for a long time. At age 23, he wrote: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.”16 More than a decade before World War II, Churchill admitted, however: “I’d say I was much more at home with a pen than on the platform. To speak in public takes a great deal out of me. I never excelled as a platform speaker.”17 Historian Norman Rose wrote: “The idiom of Churchill’s language, its narrative strength and catchy wording, its hyperbole and full-blown rhetoric, reflect his image of the world, how he viewed the past and envisaged the future, his place in this cosmos.”18 Churchill used words to define himself and to define the world. His words still define the story of the world in which he was engaged. He was, moreover, the central character of the drama which he composed – and later compiled.

“Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all,” said Churchill in 1949. In a speech to Commonwealth representatives on June 12, 1940, Churchill exemplified his own advice: “Hitler may turn and trample this way and that through tortured Europe. He may spread his course far and wide, and carry his curse with him: he may break into Africa or into Asia. But it is here, in this island fortress, that he will have to reckon in the end. We shall strive to resist by land and sea. We shall be on his tack wherever he goes. Our airpower will continue to teach the German homeland that war is not all loot and triumph.” Churchill continued:

We shall aid and stir the people of every conquered country to resistance and revolt. We shall break up and derange every effort which Hitler makes to systematise and consolidate his subjugation. He will find no peace, no rest, no halting-place, no parley. And if, driven to desperate hazards, he attempts the invasion of the British Isles, as well he may, we shall not flinch from the supreme trial. With the help of God, of which we must all feel daily conscious, we shall continue steadfast in faith and duty till our task is done.
This, then, is the message, which we send forth today to all the States and nations bond or free, to all the men in all the lands who care for freedom’s cause, to our allies and well-wishers in Europe, to our American friends and helpers drawing ever closer in their might across the ocean: this is the message – Lift up your hearts. All will come right. Out of the depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind.19

Not all the news Churchill had to convey was good. Early in World War II, he often was the bearer of bad tidings to the House of Commons. Churchill was rigorous in his honesty to Parliament about war conditions. Speaking to the House of Commons on June 18, 1940, Churchill said: “The disastrous military events which have happened during the past fortnight have not come to me with any sense of surprise. Indeed, I indicated a fortnight ago as clearly as I could to the House that the worst possibility were open; and I made it perfectly clear then that whatever happened in France would make no difference to the resolve of Britain and the British Empire to fight on, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”

When years later a parliamentary critic later accused Churchill of over-optimism, the prime ministered retorted: “I have not made any arrogant, confident, boasting predictions at all. On the contrary, I have stuck hard to my blood, toil, tears and sweat, to which I have added muddle and mismanagement, and that, to some extent, is what you have got out of it.”20 Churchill could be blunt in his speeches to the House of Commons, but he was careful not to undermine British morale. In late October 1944, Churchill addressed the House about his recent talks in Russia with Josef Stalin: “The present stage of the war is dour and hard, and the fighting must be expected on all fronts to increase in scale and intensity….We believe that we are in the last lap, but this is a race in which failure to exert the fullest effort the end may protract that end to periods almost unendurable to those who now have the race in their hands after struggling so far.”21

Churchill was a legislative man. “He was heart and soul a parliamentarian and a House of Commons man,” wrote historian Geoffrey Best.22 The Commons warmed to him during the war, but at the outset of Churchill’s prime ministership, many Tories were angry that he had supplemented their hero Neville Chamberlain. One MP observed Churchill in April 1943 in the House of Commons;”He seems in great form and has thoroughly enjoyed being in the House for an hour or two each day, provided he is talking all the time.”23 In November 1944 Churchill told the Commons: “I am not afraid of [political controversy] in this country. We are a decent lot. All of us, the whole nation.”24

On his 80th birthday in 1954, Churchill spoke of the his expression of the public will in World War II, Churchill said: “Their will was resolute and remorseless, and as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the rights words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar. I also hope that I sometimes suggested to the lion the right places to use his claws.”25

In December 1943 after the summit conference in Teheran with Stalin and Roosevelt, Churchill dined at the British Embassy in Cairo with a number of guests. As usual, Churchill dominated the discussion. One geust recalled: “Among his (the PM’s) better remarks was a reply to a question about his future plans – ‘I am the victim of caprice and travel on the wings of fancy’. And on France ‘the destinies of a great people cannot be determined for all time by the temporary deficiencies of its technical apparatus’. He told us that he had been on the point of using this at Teheran and had only just remembered in time that it had originally been coined by Trotsky.’”26

Lincoln in particular had a keen sense of the nuanced meaning of public pronouncements. When the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee was defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg, General George Meade said the Union Army had driven “from our soil every vestige of the presence the invader.” Ever-conscious of the perpetual existence of the Union, President Lincoln cried in exasperation: “Drive the invaders from our soil. My God! Is that all?” In his desperation to get Meade to attack the retreating Confederate army, Lincoln wrote out a harsh message of rebuke – which he characteristically decided not to send to the temperamental officer. Aide John Hay reported to his diary: “This morning the Prest seemed depressed by Meade’s despatches of last night. They were so cautiously & almost timidly worded – talking about reconnoitering to find the enemy’s weak place and other such. He said he feared he would do nothing.”

About noon came the despatch stating that our worst fears were true. The enemy had gotten away unhurt. The Prest was deeply grieved. “We had them within our grasp,” he said. “We had only to stretch forth our hands & they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the Army move.”
Several days ago he sent a despatch to Meade which must have cut like a scourge, but Meade returned so reasonable and earnest a reply that the Prest concluded he knew best what he was doing & was reconciled to the apparent inaction which he hoped was merely apparent.

Every day he has watched the progress of the army with agonizing impatience, hope struggling with fear. He has never been easy in my own mind about Gen. Meade since Meade’s General Order in which he called on his troops to drive the invader from our soil. The Prest says, “This is a dreadful reminiscence of [General George B]McClellan. The same spirit that moved McC. to claim a great victory because Pa. & Md. were safe. The hearts of 10 million people sunk within them when McClellan raised that shout last fall. Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.”27

Union General James B. Fry recalled his own impression of Lincoln’s reaction to the offending words “from our soil”: “Lincoln watched the operations of the armies in the field with the deepest interest, the keenest insight, and the widest comprehension. The congratulatory order which General Meade published to his troops after the battle of Gettysburg was telegraphed to the War Department. During those days and nights of anxiety, Lincoln clung to the War Office, and devoured every scrap of news as it came over the telegraph wires. He hoped for and expected substantial fruits from our dearly bought victory at Gettysburg. I saw him read General Meade’s congratulatory order. When he came to the sentence about ‘driving the invaders from our soil,’ an expression of disappointment settled upon his face, his hands dropped upon his knees, and in tones of anguish he exclaimed, ‘Drive the invaders from our soil! My God! Is that all?”28 When President Lincoln and General Meade later met, Lincoln inquired: “Do you know, General, what your attitude towards Lee after the battle of Gettysburg reminded me of?” Meade replied: “No, Mr. President – what is it?” Lincoln said: “I’ll be hanged if I could think of anything else but an old woman trying to shoo her geese across a creek.”29

Churchill was a steward of the English language. He embraced its use as a tool of political combat. In 1919, Churchill advised the then Prince of Wales about the use of language: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time.”30 A few years later, Churchill stated: “There is nothing that gives greater pleasure to a speaker than seeing his great points go home. It is like the bullet that strikes the body of the victim.”31 Churchill’s key military aide, General Hastings Ismay wrote: “His interest in terminology even extended to the selection of code names for operations. Facetious names met with vehement disapproval…much better use the names of ‘heroes of antiquity, or figures from Greek and Roman mythology.’ The titles of the six volumes of his Second World War show his flair for finding appropriate phrases. The Gathering Storm, Their Finest Hour, The Grand Alliance, The Hinge of Fate, Closing the Ring, Triumph and Tragedy. There, in nineteen words, is a panorama of the origin, the course and the aftermath of the war.”32 At the beginning of 1944, Churchill wrote the Chiefs of Staff about descriptions of the upcoming D-Day landing in Normandy: “I hope that all expressions such as ‘Invasion of Europe’ or ‘Assault upon the Fortress of Europe’ may be eliminated henceforward. I shall address the President again on this subject shortly pointing out that our object is the liberation of Europe from German tyranny, that we ‘enter’ the oppressed countries rather “invade’ them and that the word ‘invasion’ must be reserved for the time when we cross the German frontier. There is no need for us to make a present to Hitler of the idea that he is the defender of a Europe we are seeking to invade.”33

Both Lincoln and Churchill were masters of metaphor and colorful language. Opposing an allied landing on Italy’s toe, Churchill asked “Why should we crawl up the leg like a harvest bug, from the ankle upwards? Let us rather strike at the knee.”34 Churchill’s metaphors were also employed in his correspondence. In January 1941, Churchill wrote regarding the deteriorating military situation in Greece: “The evidence in our possession of the German movements seems overwhelming. In the face of it Prince Paul’s attitude looks like that of an unfortunate man in the cage with a tiger, hoping not to provoke him while steadily dinner-time approaches.”35 In 1959 in his last political speech, Churchill declared: “Among our Socialist opponents there is great confusion. Some regard private enterprise as if it were a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look upon it as a cow that they can milk. Only a handful see it for what it really is–the strong horse that pulls the whole cart along.”36 Sometimes, Lincoln advisors sought to have him excise the president’s more colorful language. That was the case in July 1861 when the public printer, an Indiana politician named John D. Defrees, sought to have him delete the word “sugar-coated” from his message to Congress. Lincoln responded: “Well, Defrees, if you think the time will ever come when people will not understand what ‘sugar-coated’ means, I’ll alter it; otherwise I think I’ll let it go.” Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: “Like his many homely but effective figures of speech this one demanded simple and idiomatic language, and it was Defrees, rather than Lincoln, whose feeling for diction was awry.”37

“Churchill’s feeling for the English tongue was sensual, almost erotic; when he coined a phrase he would suck it, rolling it around his palate to extract its full flavor,” wrote biographer William Manchester. “Like all writers, he had his favorite words: unflinching, austere, somber, squalid. He said aircraft, not aeroplane,, and airfield, never aerodrome. He also liked to gather his adjectives in squads of four. Bernard Montgomery was ‘austere, severe, accomplished, tireless’; Joe Chamberlain was ‘lively, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive.’” He would open a speech with a sluggish largo tempo, apparently unsure of himself; then he would pull out his organ’s Grand Swell and the Vox Humana, and the essence of his prose would be revealed; a bold, ponderous, rolling, pealing, easy rhythm, broken by vivid stabbing strokes.”38 In long public speeches before the presidency, Lincoln also started slow and built up his confidence. Once in office, most of Lincoln’s public pronouncements were written rather than read. His rare public speeches – like the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural – were notable for their brevity. Lincoln scholar Fred Kaplan wrote: “Precision, brevity, and plain speech became his characteristic style.”39 Like Churchill, there was a strong rhythm to Lincoln’s mature rhetoric.

Both Lincoln and Churchill were influenced by poetry, especially by William Shakespeare. They were students of literature and the techniques of effective language. Like Churchill, who often arranged his speeches as prose poems, Lincoln had a strong of rhythm. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote that “almost every commentator rightly observes that Lincoln’s most impressive writing is ‘cadenced’ and has close affinities with poetry. Roy P. Basler, the author of perhaps the most penetrating studies of the subject, asked the hard question of ‘whether Lincoln’s memorable passages are remembered today because of [their much-heralded qualities of exactness, clarity and simplicity] or because of the unique effects of arrangement, rhythm, and sound which accompany them.’” Wilson wrote that “Basler himself points to what Lincoln told his law partner about the efficacy of reading aloud. Much to Herndon’s annoyance, it was Lincoln’s regular practice to do his office reading aloud, which he justified by saying that both hearing and seeing what he read enabled him to remember it better.”40

While Churchill dictated his speeches to secretaries, Lincoln wrote his own before reading them aloud. In August 1863, President Lincoln recruited aide William O. Stoddard to listen to him read a draft of his public letter to be read at a Springfield rally being organized by attorney James Conkling. Lincoln had used the term “Uncle Sam’s web feet” to describe the U.S. Navy. Stoddard remembered the conversation when the president concluded his recitation:

“Now!” he said when it was finished. “Is there any criticism that you want to make?”
“Well,” I said, “I was thinking, of course, it’s as nearly beyond criticism as it well could be, but there’s one place –
”What’s that?” he asked. “Take the paper and show it to me.”
“Why, Mr. Lincoln,” I said, “some people will find fault with this – ‘Nor must Uncle Sam’s web feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present, not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, the rapid river, but also up the narrow, muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been and made their tracks.’”
Lincoln was laughing silently when I began and loudly when I ended. “That’s it, is it?” he exclaimed. “I reckoned it would be some such place as that. I’ll leave it just as it is. I reckon the people’ll know what it means.”
“That’s about the only fault I find,” I said, “I never saw a web-footed gunboat in my life. They’re a queer kind of duck.”
“Some of them get ashore, though,’ he said with another laugh. “I’ll leave it in, now I know how it’s going to sound. That’ll do. I shan’t want you any more this time.”
When that letter was printed, there were stacks of literary geniuses everywhere who made the same criticism that I did, but not in the hearing of Mr. Lincoln.41

For Further Reference

  1. Richard Langworth, Churchill by Himself, p. 54 (May 15, 1938).
  2. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 185, 184 (Sketch 10).
  3. Douglas L. Wilson, “Lincoln’s Rhetoric,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter, 2013, pp. 4-5.
  4. Paul M. Angle, “Lincoln’s Power with Words,” Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume III, 1981, p. 9.
  5. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 142-143.
  6. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 576.
  7. Douglas L. Wilson, “The Unfinished Text of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 1994, Volume 15, No. 1, p. 73.
  8. Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography, p. 462.
  9. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 43.
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Words of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume V, p. 537 (Second Annual Message to Congress, December, 1862).
  11. Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard, editors, Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment, p. 135 (Ronald C. White, Jr., “Lincoln and the Rhetoric of Freedom”).
  12. Gary Ecelbarger. The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination, p. 26.
  13. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 133 (Charles S. Zane, “A Young Lawyer’s Memories of Lincoln”) Charles S. Zane (Sunset: The Pacific Monthly).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson, “Lincoln’s Rhetoric,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter, 2013, pp. 9.
  15. Nigel Nicolson, editor, Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945, p. 125 (November 5, 1940).
  16. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 56.
  17. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 7.
  18. Norman Rose, Churchill: The Unruly Giant, p. 264.
  19. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1109.
  20. Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Church: A Study in Character, p. 224.
  21. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p (October 27, 1944).
  22. Geoffrey Best, Churchill and War, p. 126.
  23. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 377.
  24. Nigel Nicolson, editor, Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945, p. 413. (November 29, 1944).
  25. Richard Langworth, Churchill by Himself, p. 58 (November 30, 1954).
  26. Julian Amery, Approach March, a Venture in Autobiography, p. 270.
  27. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 62-63 (July 14, 1863).
  28. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 402 (James B. Fry).
  29. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 512.
  30. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 57
  31. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 57 (April 28, 1927).
  32. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 189.
  33. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 633.
  34. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 442.
  35. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 980 (January 14, 1941).
  36. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 392 (September 29, 1959).
  37. Roy P. Basler, editor, Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, p. 38
  38. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, p. 30.
  39. Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, p. 44.
  40. Douglas L. Wilson, “Lincoln’s Rhetoric,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter, 2013, p. 11.
  41. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 194.
Posted in Essays