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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005 06:37 pm

That high lonesome sound

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The Eloquent President By Ronald C. White Jr., Random House, 2005, 448 pages, $26.95

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated into his first term, the country did not know much about its new president. Asked to describe his education for a biographical sketch in the Dictionary of Congress, Lincoln replied with one word: “defective.” Members of the cabinet and Congress worried that Lincoln’s backwoods education and inexperience as an administrator offered little hope on the brink of civil war. Their fears were further fueled by off-the-cuff speeches Lincoln gave on his extended train trip from Springfield to Washington before the swearing-in. His Farewell Address has gone down in history as a masterpiece. But his telling the crowds in Philadelphia “I would rather be assassinated on the spot than to surrender it [the Union]” lacked the circumspection most felt was a prerequisite to his office.

In his book The Eloquent President, Ronald C. White Jr. illustrates Lincoln’s political maturation, tracing his trajectory in the simplicity and grace of his words. White believes that the quality of the president’s rhetoric was no less than the thread that held the Union together. He laments that we have no recording of Lincoln’s voice. By contemporary accounts, it was a high falsetto and carried for long distances, an asset that would be necessary as the crowds swelled to hear him. More than 1,000 people came to bid him farewell at the Springfield train station on Feb. 11, 1861. He hadn’t written a speech but had been thinking about what to say to those with whom he had lived for a quarter-century. When the train left the station, a reporter asked him to write out the remarks he had just delivered.

Echoes of the precision and poetry in those 152 words will appear in the speeches Lincoln would deliver as president. He was fond of parallel structures: “Here my children have been born, and one is buried.” He knew that alliteration helps a listener remember what has been said; in his Inaugural Address he would speak of not breaking the bonds of affection, and shortly thereafter of battlefields and the “better¬†angels of our nature.” Assonance lent his words a poetic quality: Instead of simply saying “I close,” he said, “I am loth to close.” Lincoln knew about sound long before the advent of the sound bite.

It is now commonplace for presidents to rely on cadres of speechwriters to put their (or at least what we hope are their) thoughts into words. Although we may like to think that Lincoln wrote every word himself, this is not the case. Men such as Secretary of State William H. Seward were extremely important in helping Lincoln shape his ideas. White shows us the process of draft and revision. If Seward is on target with a particular tone that needs to be taken, however, it is Lincoln who tunes the sentiment to exactly the right pitch.

All of Lincoln’s major speeches are here. White suggests that we read them aloud. Doing so, we
realize the powerful, visceral potential words possess, and we can almost hear that high falsetto voice ringing in our ears.

The event begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 12. For more information on the series, contact Tim Townsend at 217-492-4241, ext. 241. White is also scheduled to appear Sunday, Feb. 13, at First Presbyterian Church, 321 S. Seventh St.

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