The Power of Rhetoric

Personally I am greatly indebted to my freshman high school English teacher who nudged me, as unwillingly and ignorant as I was at the time, into the school’s speech and debate program. There I learned techniques and honed some skills which have helped me a great deal in the past five decades. During that experience and in much reading and listening since then, I have developed some appreciation for the art of rhetoric. I write about that today because on June 16, 1858, a lanky lawyer running for the U.S. Senate gave a speech in Springfield, Illinois. Abe Lincoln’s speech that day came to be known as “the house divided speech.”

In the opening paragraphs, Lincoln said that, “agitation [about the issue of slavery] has not only not ceased [since 1853], but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘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 this further spread and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is on a course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates shall press it forward, until it shall become alike lawful in all of the States, old as well as new, North as well as South. Have we no tendency to this latter condition?”

Lincoln proceeded to identify the people and causes creating the problem.

“Let any one who doubts this contemplate that now almost complete legal combination–piece of machinery, so to speak–compounded of the Nebraska doctrine [passed by Congress in 1854], and the Dred Scott decision [in the Supreme Court in March, 1857]. Let him consider not only what work that machinery is adapted to, but how well adapted. Also, also, let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidences of design, of concert of action, among its chief bosses, from the very beginning.”

Lincoln made clear that he had no objection to slavery where it existed before the Kansas-Nebraska Act. What he feared, he said, was that under that Act, coupled with the decision in Dred Scott, that Illinois, and other free states, could be compelled to become slave states. The on-going mess he blamed on the machinations of his rival, Stephen Douglas, along with Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Franklin Pierce, the former President, and James Buchanan, the current President.

Further, Lincoln responded to southern calls to reopen the African slave trade. (Legal international slave trade had been banned since 1808. Illegal international slave trade continued to flourish. The primary efforts to stop illegal slave trade were being made by the British government since 1815). Lincoln described Douglas as “if not a dead lion, for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one. How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don’t care whether it gets voted down or voted up. His avowed mission is to impress the ‘public heart’ to care nothing whether its voted down or voted up.”

Attacking Douglas’ record [Douglas had served in the Senate since 1846 and had the power of an incumbent on his side as he sought yet another term], Lincoln went on to say: “For years he [Douglas] has labored to prove it a sacred right for men to take negro slaves into the new Territories. Can he possibly show that it’s less a sacred right to buy them where they can be bought cheaper?

Unquestionably they can be bought cheaper in Africa than in Virginia. He’s done all in his power to reduce the whole question of slavery to one of a right of property; and as such, how can he oppose the foreign slave trade–how can he refuse that trade in that ‘property’ shall be ‘perfectly free’? — unless he does it as a protection to those who are home producers. Well, then, as the home producers will probably not ask for that the protection, he shall be wholly without any ground of opposition.”

It is an amazing speech from a man who had many more, and very powerful speeches yet to give. Any time I read Lincoln’s speeches and those of his contemporaries, I am struck by their command of language. Granted, lawyers, politicians, preachers, and other such public figures provided popular “entertainment” before radio and other electronic media existed. Eloquence was expected and usually appreciated. I wonder if politicians today could do as well. I appreciate those who make an effort. I think it is unfortunate that today our society equates the word “rhetoric” with empty promises or tricky word games. The root Greek word means “the art of persuasive speaking.”

That I like.

In the 1993 film Gettysburg, there is one short scene which moves me immensely. Actor Jeff Daniels portrayed Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin (1828-1914). On the second day of the battle, Chamberlin’s regiment, the 20th Maine, took up a position on Little Round Top, at the very end of the Union line. Chamberlin’s orders were to “hold to the last.” Before the war’s outbreak, Chamberlin, himself fluent in nine languages, taught rhetoric at his alma mater, Bowdoin College. In the film, as his soldiers take their positions, Chamberlin attempts to calm himself. In his mind, he says, “Exercise in rhetoric. Last man. Last bullet. Last foot of ground.” The music and the sound of the soldiers running into line almost make it hard to hear. Yet the brief scene grips me. Words have power. Rhetoric, the art of the spoken word, has power. Power to calm one’s own heart. Power to move the hearts of others.


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