How to be as persuasive as Abraham Lincoln, Part 1: Study the figures of speech and Shakespeare

I think science has mostly told us what it can about the urgent need to act swiftly and strongly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid destroying the planet’s livability for the next thousand years.

Yes, more observations and more analysis are valuable — and I will keep reporting on the ever-worsening climate outlook — but right now we need much more persuasiveness (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1 and Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”). Since

  • This month we celebrate the 200th birthday of our most eloquent president;
  • We now have another eloquent president whose entire team must use all the tools of persuasion if we are to save the nation and the planet (see “Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010. Here’s how.“);
  • I think all climate science advocates should emulate the eloquent green jobs advocate Van Jones and study the speeches of the great persuaders (see “Van Jones and the English Language“; and
  • I still have a lot of material from my unpublished book on rhetoric

I’m going to run a four-part series on Lincoln’s mastery of rhetoric, the 25-century-old art of influencing both the hearts and minds of listeners with the figures of speech. If you have any doubt about the importance of the figures to Lincoln, consider this:

In a famous 1858 speech, Lincoln paraphrased Jesus, saying “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and he extended the house metaphor throughout the speech. His law partner, William Herndon, later wrote that Lincoln had told him he wanted to use “some universally known figure [of speech] expressed in simple language … that may strike home to the minds of men in order to raise them up to the peril of the times.”

Part 1 will look briefly at how Lincoln taught himself the figures. Later parts will look at his use of three figures in particular: irony, metaphor, and extended metaphor. The best textbook on the figures of speech in the English language, other than the King James Bible, is the complete works of Shakespeare.

The Bard and his audience knew and used over two hundred figures of speech. The figures–the catalog of the different, effective ways that we talk–turn out to “constitute basic schemes by which people conceptualize their experience and the external world,” as one psychologist put it.

Elizabethans like Shakespeare learned the figures the hard way. William likely attended the town grammar school from age seven to at least age thirteen. Grammar schools got their name because they taught grammar–Latin grammar. The schooling was intensive: ten hours a day, six days a week, thirty-six weeks a year.

The amount of repetition was staggering: Every single hour of instruction required, according to one sixteenth-century schoolmaster, six or more hours of exercises to apply the lesson to both speaking and writing. Much of the curriculum was rhetoric since the Elizabethans saw eloquence as the greatest skill to be acquired and rhetoric as the key to the Bible and literature. The teaching strategy was systematic: “First learn the figures, secondly identify them in whatever you read, thirdly use them yourself.” Hour after hour after hour, identifying every figure in Ovid or Cicero, then creating your own versions.

How did students respond to such rigorous teaching? C. S. Lewis says we must imagine the following mindset of would-be Elizabethan poets: “Your father, your grown-up brother, your admired elder school fellow all loved rhetoric. Therefore you loved it, too. You adored sweet Tully [Marcus Tullius Cicero] and were as concerned about asyndeton and chiasmus [figures of speech] as a modern schoolboy is about county cricketers or types of aeroplanes.”

Nineteenth-century America lacked the rigorous teaching of the rhetoric of Shakespeare’s day, but orators were widely admired, entertaining large audiences–and larger readerships–with speeches that lasted over two hours and that might be printed in a local newspaper, the text often filling the entire front page. This was the golden age of American oratory, the age of Daniel Webster, of Henry Clay, of Stephen Douglas, and of Abraham Lincoln.

In modern times, with multiple media to entertain ourselves with–television, movies, radio, the Internet, video games, iPods–we can hardly imagine what it was like to live at a time when public speeches and debates were a primary form of entertainment. One 1858 audience, after sitting through three hours of Lincoln and Douglas debating, actually went out to hear another speech. Lincoln himself, after his first debate with Douglas that year, headed off to hear another speech.

Lincoln, a master orator, debater, and rhetorician, was the most consciously rhetorical of our presidents. He once incisively attacked an opponent for employing a particular metaphor–using a metaphor of his own: “I wish gentlemen on the other side to understand that the use of degrading figures [of speech] is a game at which they may not find themselves able to take all the winnings.”

In Lincoln’s day, aspiring preachers, lawyers, and politicians were taught some rhetoric in college, though they would have learned much just from their study of the Bible. Lincoln worked hard to teach himself elocution and grammar.

Lincoln studied the great speechmakers of his time, like Daniel Webster, as well the great Elizabethan speechmaker. At an early age, he appears to have studied William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, which ends with forty-nine speeches from life and art, nineteen from Shakespeare, including a number that he memorized, such as the soliloquy by King Claudius on the guilt he feels for having murdered Hamlet’s father. At the age of twenty-three, Lincoln walked six miles to get a copy of Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar, which ends with a several-page discussion of the figures of speech.

Lincoln continued his passion for poetry and Shakespeare throughout his entire life. He spent hours reading passages from Shakespeare to his personal secretary John Hay and the artist F. B. Carpenter. After seeing one performance of Henry IV Part One, Lincoln debated Hay on the meaning and emphasis of a single phrase of Falstaff’s. During the painting of “Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Carpenter describes Lincoln reciting Claudius’s 36-line speech in Hamlet “from memory, with a feeling and appreciation unsurpassed by anything I ever witnessed upon the stage.”

The one figure of speech discussed in both Kirkham’s book (briefly) and Scott’s book (with three full pages of examples) is antithesis–placing words or ideas in contrast or opposition, such as Lord Chesterfield’s quip, “The manner of speaking is as important as the matter,” or Shakespeare’s

Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.”

This became one of Lincoln’s favorite figures, in unforgettable lines such as “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” and “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Related Posts:


11 Responses to How to be as persuasive as Abraham Lincoln, Part 1: Study the figures of speech and Shakespeare

  1. Most of the persuasion will be cast to historians, if any are still around to see how eloquent your words have been.

    Keep in mind that highly motivated marketing and PR firms use words and image for campaigns that ultimately generate revenue. And they too are very skilled.

    They study their craft just as much. Or more. And they see and feel their results almost immediately. And they don’t care about history.

    I prefer the stature and heroics of Presidents, but I fear the ad agency is more effective.

  2. This is great stuff. You have an unpublished book on rhetoric? You should publish it–in the age of Obama, it will be of great interest.

  3. Joe says:


    Yes, and I think it’s actually a pretty good book. But it is exceedingly hard to get a nonfiction book published in a field in which you are not a recognized expert — even with a very good agent.

    To give you an idea of how serious I am, I actually own, but I’ve been too busy to do anything with it.

    Eventually I will probably post my book there.

  4. Jon says:


    Publish your book @! Free access to sample chapters/paragraphs with a paid ebook download/access.

    Somebody ’round here usually says ‘The time to act is now.’

  5. Carol Eisenberg says:

    I look forward to reading it when you do post or publish — don’t forget to alert us!

  6. jcwinnie says:

    “I still have a lot of material from my unpublished book on rhetoric”
    “Ya don’t say”

  7. Mark says:

    You left one out.

    Lincoln listed his three rhetorical influences as Shakespeare, the Bible and Euclid. He was one of the last Republicans to believe in this whole logic fad.

  8. Chris Hatch says:

    Definitely publish it. Great, important and timely topic.

    Unsolicited advice: There’s a piece about making it relevant to “the internet age.” And that’s a hook publishers and promoters need too. I’d suggest you need a bridge between the rhetoric of the greats and how we apply that in a time where so few people read more than a subject header.

    And where the h*** did you get the time? I can barely keep up just reading your posts….

  9. Maarten says:

    Examples for antitheses, just to practice a little bit:

    Tax what you burn, not what you earn. — A Gore

    We can more conveniently save oil, than oil producing countries cannot produce it. — Amory B Lovins

    If we want to keep our way of life, we should change our ways.

  10. bi -- IJI says:

    I prefer the stature and heroics of Presidents, but I fear the ad agency is more effective.

    The main tactic of the current breed of global warming inactivists seems to be one of pure repetition. Their tactic seems to be, let’s just keep pumping out the same talking points again and again and again until the other side’s drowned out:

    globul warmin is marxist plot medieval warm period globul coolin medieval warm period co2 good globul coolin urban heat island globul cooling marxist plot galileo urban heat island co2 good model useless co2 good galileo marxist plot … … …

    More generally, it’s about stirring up noise, as I point out in my blog entry.

    That’s not to say I think that studying figures of speech isn’t important; it is, but the simple technique of brute repetition is something that must also be taken into account.

  11. Shelly T. says:

    “That’s not to say I think that studying figures of speech isn’t important; it is, but the simple technique of brute repetition is something that must also be taken into account.”

    My background is in advertising and PR, and this is exactly what drives home a point. Repetition and lots of it. Like those endless ads for natural gas and oil. Nice rhetoric gets a civilized debate, but the deniers of climate change are not civilized, they are persistent and loud. In some cases, we have to shout them down using their tactics of illogic and rudeness, especially on social media sites where the most brutal debater is the one perceived as the winner. Deniers are not necessarily intelligent or well educated and I’m afraid the art of rhetoric would be useless on most of them.
    They have made the denial of facts into an art form.