Profiles in Persuasion: President Abraham Lincoln

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This is the second in a series of posts that will outline the persuasive tactics of ten presidents, focusing on a specific trait for each respective leader. The first, Lyndon B. Johnson, can be found here.


In this month of persuasive leadership, we’ll be taking a look at the rhetorical skill of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, rose to prominence and led the nation decades before radio or television. His persuasive skills were sharpened in an era where public oratory was cherished and celebrated, and for that reason his public speaking acumen is the focus of this month.

Perhaps because photographs were a new technology, and the written word was required to bear more weight than it might today, there is a trove of descriptions about the 16th president. The words did not paint a generous picture of his appearance:

Mr. 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

To mention his appearance is not to disparage the man; in fact, it plays an important role in describing how he excelled in public speaking. His appearance matched his rhetoric: slow, deliberate and, often, sad.

With public speaking as the primary means of debate and political conversation, to be eloquent in the 19th century was essential. Abraham Lincoln rose to the occasion.

The watershed moment for Lincoln came in 1858, during his bid to be the US Senator from Illinois. Before it, he was not well-known beyond certain pockets of his state.

The Great Debates of 1858 were conducted over seven different occasions, with the issue of slavery as the focus. Lincoln, as you might guess, spoke against slavery, while Douglas took the opposing viewpoint.

One of the most famous quotes delivered by Abraham Lincoln was the kickoff to the 1858 campaign:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

His speeches were known to be colored by a logical progression, methodical in style:

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

And he had a talent to persuade, too:

It 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

Clearly, even before the presidency, Lincoln had a commanding presence and knew how to craft a compelling message. The speeches delivered over the course of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates were later compiled and edited into books that propelled Lincoln to the national stage.

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