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The Rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln . Ashley Arnold Casey Wilkinson. Lincoln’s Equality Rhetoric. David Zarefsky. The Nature of Rhetoric and Change. The classic political paradox: remaining consistent in one’s basic principles while also adapting to changing circumstances and audiences

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The rhetoric of abraham lincoln

The Rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln

Ashley Arnold

Casey Wilkinson

The nature of rhetoric and change
The Nature of Rhetoric and Change

  • The classic political paradox: remaining consistent in one’s basic principles while also adapting to changing circumstances and audiences

  • David Zarefsky examines how Lincoln navigated this paradox in respect to the pressing issue of equality

  • We will attempt to trace the evolution of Lincoln’s stance by examining his rhetoric in public statements

Lincoln s early thoughts on equality
Lincoln’s Early Thoughts on Equality

  • Lincoln held a consistently limited view of racial equality until midway through the Civil War when, under the force of military necessity, it began to change. Yet he articulated his position in a way that also permitted a more expansive view of equality once the time was right.

  • Lincoln’s first public statement on slavery came in 1837. He stated, “(slavery is) founded on both injustice and bad policy.” He then added, “abolition doctrines tend rather to increase than abate its evils

  • Therefore, he condemned slavery, but did not see abolition as a satisfactory alternative, and did not yet advocate equality.

Lincoln s early thoughts on equality1
Lincoln’s Early Thoughts on Equality

  • In 1854 Lincoln the issue of slavery becomes paramount in public discourse due to the Kansas-Nebraska Act

  • Lincoln’s speeches then began to clarify his objection to slavery on moral grounds, however, he focused on his objection to extending slavery into the free territories.

  • In 1854 Lincoln stated, “There is a vast difference between toleration [slavery where it enjoyed institutional protection], and protecting the slaveholder in the rights granted him by the Constitution, and extending slavery over a territory already free, and uncontaminated with the institution.

  • Lincoln was not ready to support abolition or equality in public

Lincoln s early thoughts on equality2
Lincoln’s Early Thoughts on Equality

  • In October, Lincoln continued to establish a foundation of moral objection to slavery in his rhetoric. He stated that he hated slavery both, “because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself” and “because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.”

  • This statement gives Lincoln a basis for universal objection to slavery. At this time, however, he refuses to take it that far.

Lincoln s early thoughts on equality3
Lincoln’s Early Thoughts on Equality

  • In 1855 there were two major developments in Lincoln’s equality rhetoric

  • First, he focused on ending slavery in the future rather than in the present. Lincoln stated, “Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently – forever– half slave and half free?”

  • Second, Lincoln’s speeches and writings began to clarify that slavery was evil because it denied the basic human right of “the right to rise.”

1857 the springfield speech
1857: The Springfield Speech

  • This speech was given shortly after the Dred Scott decision.

  • It is vital in Lincoln’s equality rhetoric evolution because it marks the first time he publicly articulated the goal of an eventual end to slavery and is evidence he was beginning to support the idea of equality.

Four key components of the speech
Four Key Components of the Speech

  • 1. Dissociation and the Meaning of “Equality”

  • 2. Constructing “Equality” as an abstract idea

  • 3. Defending against the charge of Extremism

  • 4. Defining Douglas as an Extremist

Dissociation and the meaning of equality
Dissociation and the Meaning of “Equality

  • At this time debate centered around what the founders mean by “all men are created equal.”

  • In this speech, Lincoln stated, “I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men equal– equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

  • This is called dissociation, taking a seemingly unitary term “equality” and suggesting it actually has several different dimensions and meanings, rejecting some and embracing others.

Equality as an abstract ideal
Equality as an Abstract Ideal

  • Lincoln’s second move in the Springfield speech was to regard the achievement of equality as an abstract ideal rather than an immediate political goal.

  • Lincoln stated, “(the Founders) did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant to simply declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”

  • Thus, Lincoln establishes the Founding Fathers as his allies which leads to contrasting Douglas as a villain.

Defending against the charge of extremism
Defending against the charge of Extremism

  • Lincoln emphasized that Republican’s had yielded to the Court’s Dred Scott decision.

  • “(Douglas) denounces all who question the correctness of that decision, as offering violent resistance to it. But who resists it? Who has, in spite of the decision, declared Dred Scott free, and resisted the authority of his master over him?

  • Lincoln also stated that Douglas was attempting to dodging the real issues by focusing on the slavery debate.

Defining douglas as extremist
Defining Douglas as Extremist

  • Lincoln charged that Douglas was actively working to spread slavery into the territories.

  • Just like today, both were trying to paint the other as extremists to make them less appealing to the middle.

1858 the lincoln douglas debates
1858: The Lincoln-DouglasDebates

  • Lincoln would make seemingly contrasting statements in different regions of the state in regards to equality while running for Senate.

  • For example, Lincoln stated, “Let us discard all this quibbling about this race or that race being in an inferior position…let us discard all these things and unite as one people throughout this land.

  • Two weeks later he stated, “…there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

  • Lincoln was able to make such statements in different regions, yet also remain consistent overall by maintaining the dissociation and utilizing hedging devices.

Maintaining the dissociation
Maintaining the Dissociation

  • Lincoln continued to distinguish between equality as an economic principle and equality as a social and political principle.

  • Lincoln distinguished between the rights of a man and the rights of a citizen.

  • Therefore, when he said all men are created equal, he was speaking in an economic sense, when he disclaimed equality, he was speaking in a social and political sense. Thus making the two statements consistent.

Hedging devices
Hedging Devices

  • Lincoln used hedging devices to give himself room to modify his views later when conditions warranted, and still be able to claim consistency.

  • For example, tied all of his statements about rights to the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, if with time the views of the meaning of the rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence changed, then his did too.

  • Another example can be found in a response to Douglas, “I agree with Judge Douglas [the negro] is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. (emphasis added)

Into the presidency
Into the Presidency

  • Lincoln’s basic position on racial equality changed little between the debates in 1858 and his accession to the presidency in 1861.

  • He increasingly aligned his view with that which he attributed to the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence, yet he consistently distinguished economic rights from political and social rights.

Into the presidency1
Into the Presidency

  • The Civil War caused Lincoln to gently began distancing himself from his earlier disavowals of racial equality.

  • For the first two years of the war, he made it clear that the goal was the preservation of the Union, not the eradication of slavery.

  • As the war proceeded, that goal allowed him to justify more radical measures. The Union would be helped if slaves in the rebel states could defect to the Union side.

Into the presidency2
Into the Presidency

  • In 1864 he wrote a letter to Albert Hodges, in which he stated, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me any unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.”

  • Lincoln’s own beliefs were not deemed sufficient to justify his attacks on slavery; only military necessity could do that.


  • Lincoln’s basic position always remained the same throughout his career

  • He favored economic equality, but not social and political equality between the races.

  • Lincoln adapted this basic position in different ways as the audience and situation required, relying on dissociation and hedging devices.

  • In the end, it was military necessity and desire to keep the union together that gave him the RIGHT to act on how he FELT.

Major rhetorical challenges facing lincoln
Major Rhetorical Challenges facing Lincoln

  • Interpret conflict between the North and the South

  • Ensue the Civil War to support the Union cause

  • Sustain commitment to the war

  • Justify the sacrifices entailed

The rhetoric of abraham lincoln

The First



March 4, 1861

First inaugural
First Inaugural

  • Lincoln entered his first term with the intent to preserve the union at all costs

  • In his first address, he attempts to cement the continued support of the citizens.

  • In terms of understanding Lincoln’s rhetoric, this speech is quite clear as it reflects the controversies that surrounded Lincoln at the time.

First inaugural1
First Inaugural

  • Announces Lincoln’s intention to respect the rights of states in regard to slavery.

  • Lincoln remarked “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of Slavery in the states where it exists. I believe that I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

First inaugural2
First Inaugural

  • Mention of the Constitution occurs often mostly to justify his beliefs

  • Lincoln comments that he intends to uphold the provision of the Constitution that assures the return of fugitive slaves, and also vows to never construe the Constitution by any hypercritical rules.

  • “All members of congress swear their support to the whole constitution-to this provision, as much as to any other…”

First inaugural3
First Inaugural

  • Most significant issue addressed: the disruption of the Union.

  • Lincoln states in a lucid manner, “no state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union…and acts of violence within any State or States, against the United states are revolutionary…”

First inaugural4
First Inaugural

  • Boldly, Lincoln implies what he will and will not do to preserve the Union.

  • He will see that the laws are adhered to in all states, and he will continue to hope for “a peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections.”

  • He will not tolerate violence or force to enforce laws unless necessary to defend the property of the government.

First inaugural5
First Inaugural

  • Lincoln continues to make his support of the Union known, and moreover, tries to offer advice to those not in favor of the principles of the Union.

  • By stating “the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” Lincoln attempts to persuade the minority to agree to the will of the majority (the Union).

The rhetoric of abraham lincoln




November 19, 1863

Gettysburg address
Gettysburg Address

  • As the war continued, Lincoln began to see it as a struggle over the values in the Declaration of Independence rather than simply a disagreement over constitutional issues.

  • In this address, Lincoln’s main rhetorical task was to offer citizens a fair interpretation of what the war meant and to make sense of issues at hand.

Gettysburg address1
Gettysburg Address

  • Lincoln intends to represent the larger meaning that emerges from the sacrifices made by the soldiers.

  • Lincoln notes that “we have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives…”

  • He goes on to state that “in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, consecrate or hollow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Gettysburg address2
Gettysburg Address

  • At this point, Lincoln encourages listeners that they can “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

  • Lincoln emphasizes here that the Civil War is not a political struggle over the rights of states to secede, but rather a test of the survival of the nation, by and for the people.

  • He wanted to make sure that the sacrifices of the men during the war were recognized and that the cause for which they died was not lost.

The rhetoric of abraham lincoln

The Second



March 4,1865

Second inaugural
Second Inaugural

  • Lincoln spoke from quite a different perspective in this address—he adopted the platform that advocated the emancipation of the slaves.

  • In this address, he reflects upon the meaning of the war for the country as a whole.

  • Only four paragraphs, yet encompassing and profound

Second inaugural1
Second Inaugural

  • In the introductory paragraph, Lincoln comments briefly on the state of the war, as he notes it is “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.”

  • Lincoln then sums up the first paragraph by noting that he has “high hope for the future…” in terms of the state of war.

Second inaugural2
Second Inaugural

  • In the second paragraph of the speech, Lincoln starts with a description of the situation in 1861, when all dreaded war.

  • The paragraph then shifts to a clear description of the positions of the two sides, all the while, placing blame on the South for ultimately ensuing the events.

  • Of the South, Lincoln states “one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive,” and of the North he comments “the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

Second inaugural3
Second Inaugural

  • In the third paragraph, Lincoln suggests that all knew that slavery was somehow the cause of the war.

  • He clearly denotes a contrast between the north and the south when he states, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.”

  • Places Lincoln and the North on a superior level.

Second inaugural4
Second Inaugural

  • Lincoln continues with the ethereal theme as he continues into the third paragraph.

  • He states that “the Almighty has His own purposes” and further continues to state that God “having now continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.”

  • Lincoln suggests that “for it needs be that offenses come” and both the North and South are required to sacrifice through the war to compensate for the guilt of slavery. However, he makes it known that the South advocated the practice of slavery, while the North sought to restrict its spread.

Second inaugural5
Second Inaugural

  • Though Lincoln takes a stance of non-judgment, he makes it blatantly clear that the North is morally superior to the “insurgents” of the South.

  • Lincoln seemed to realize that the mere cause of the Union was insufficient to justify the sacrifices of so many, and thus he turned to slavery as the sole cause of the war. Perhaps this provided more internal justification than it did external.

Rhetorical points
Rhetorical Points

  • Across all three speeches, Lincoln seems to move from minimizing the importance of the issues at hand to highlighting the struggles and moral dilemmas of the country at war.

  • He moves, respectively, from the basis of the principles of the constitution, to the views of the Declaration of Independence, to more personal, moral principles.

  • Equality and Justice instilled in people