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

Progressive messaging is a “massive botch” (see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4).  That goes double for scientific messaging (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1 and Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”).

So I’m taking the opportunity of Lincoln’s birthday to highlight once again his mastery of messaging, particularly in the Gettysburg Address, in this excerpt from my (still) as-yet unpublished book on rhetoric that discusses .

Part 1 looked at how Lincoln taught himself rhetoric, the art of persuasion through the systematic use of the figures of speech, in part by studying Shakespeare. Part 2 looked at his use of the figure of irony, where he took the tactic the Bard had Marc Antony use in his “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”and used it in his Cooper Union speech.  Part 3 looked at his use of metaphor.  As Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”  But I believe there is one thing even greater than metaphor, something that can help create a winning frame or narrative.

Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches and Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Persistent metaphors pump life blood into the Bible, into Jesus’ parables and Psalms, such as the Twenty-third, with its famous extended shepherd metaphor:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Politicians who understand extended metaphors have a long political life; those who do not, don’t have much of a pulse.

The Elizabethan era book The Garden of Eloquence by Henry Peacham explains the potency of this figure: It “serves most aptly to ingrain the lively images of things, and to present them under deep shadows to the contemplation of the mind, wherein wit and judgement take pleasure, and the remembrance receives a longer lasting impression.”

Using an extended metaphor himself, Peacham explains that while a simple metaphor “may be compared to a star in respect of beauty, brightness and direction,” an extended metaphor may be “fully likened to a figure compounded of many stars “¦ which we may call a constellation.” No wonder this figure is so widely used. Who wouldn’t want to have their words achieve the impact and longevity of heavenly images like the Big Dipper or Orion?

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln gives us a subtle but powerful example. The speech is only 270 words long-almost precisely the same length as the “To be or not to be speech.” Lincoln makes it unforgettable using an extended metaphor of birth, death, and resurrection to increase the coherence and impact of his brief remarks.

Lincoln delivers a variety of references to birth from the very beginning, “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He says the civil war is testing whether “any nation so conceived “¦ can long endure.” Lincoln then moves on to images and words of death, as befits the horrific battlefield in front of him, with phrases such as “a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives” and “the brave men, living and dead” and “these honored dead” and “these dead.” He finally returns to the original metaphor of birth, but with a twist: We must resolve that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Birth, death, rebirth and immortality (“shall not perish”)-in a place that we will make sacred (“hallow” and “consecrate” and the key repeated word, “dedicate”)-is a stunning extended metaphor that turns into an biblical allusion of hope for transcendence even during the worst suffering, with the Battle of Gettysburg becoming a symbolic national crucifixion. No wonder Winston Churchill termed Lincoln’s speech, “the ultimate expression of the majesty of Shakespeare’s language.”

Extended metaphors are often far more overt, as in Lincoln’s “house divided” speech at the start of his Illinois Senate race against Stephen Douglas. Lincoln describes how the combined effect of Supreme Court decisions and policies by Douglas and others was to extend slavery into new territories in spite of local opposition. Lincoln said “we can not absolutely know” that Douglas and the others were working together to achieve this effect, “But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places, and by different workmen “¦ and when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly matte the frame of a house” then it is “impossible not to believe” that everyone “worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck.”

Stephen Douglas resented Lincoln’s implication in the “House Divided” speech that he was part of a conspiracy to extend slavery, a charge and a metaphor Lincoln never tired of repeating everywhere. In his famous debates with Lincoln, Douglas responded with a harsh figure of his own-sarcasm:

He [Lincoln] studied that out-prepared that one sentence with the greatest care, committed it to memory, and put it in his first Springfield speech, and now he carries that speech around and reads that sentence to show how pretty it is. His vanity is wounded because I will not go into that beautiful figure of his about the building of a house. All I have to say is, that I am not green enough to let him make a charge which he acknowledges he does not know to be true, and then take up my time in answering it, when I know it to be false and nobody else knows it to be true.

But Lincoln had thought through the implications of his figure of speech. He would not give it up, as Lincoln scholar Roy Basler has explained: “Under the implications of Lincoln’s figure, constantly pressed, Douglas was constrained to make a statement of opinion that, although it immediately clear his way in the senatorial contest, eventually cost him the presidency.”

Why was Lincoln so fond of extended metaphors? They are certainly common figures in the Bible and Shakespeare, which he studied closely. We know Lincoln knew of the figure, since “allegory,” which “may be regarded as a metaphor continued,” is one of the fourteen figures of speech discussed in Kirkham’s English Grammar, the book Lincoln studied from age twenty-three.

I suspect that the reason he liked the figure is the same reason that modern candidates do: It is a masterful means of framing a political debate, exactly as he crafted the framed-timbers-of-the-house extended metaphor to frame Douglas for the crime of extending slavery. Politicians with language intelligence, like Lincoln, repeat and extend their metaphors.


19 Responses to How to be as persuasive as Abraham Lincoln: Study the figures of speech and Shakespeare

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    Lincoln preferred the soliloquy in Hamlet that begins “Oh, my offense is rank” (spoken by Claudius) even above “To be, or not to be”. (See Lincoln’s letter to James H. Hackett, Aug. 17, 1863, included in Lubin, “The Words of Abraham Lincoln”, page 422.)

    This is not to disagree with your great point, Joe, about extended metaphors. I just offer this addition point because Lincoln was a great admirer of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in general and because Claudius’ soliloquy, mentioned above, itself is very relevant to climate change in certain ways. (It was also very relevant to the sin of slavery.)

    Lincoln, Jefferson, Shakespeare, Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and etc. etc. etc. would be SHOCKED and DISTURBED with the way we are dealing (or rather, not dealing) with climate change.

    Shame on us.



  2. Georgia Samero says:

    President Lincoln Did not preside over 57 states. He was pro life and anti slavery. It was about his beliefs and not all about technique. Of course a teleprompter would not be a tool used by Honest Abe.

    [JR: I don’t understand this comment. Lincoln had many great attributes, but he was certainly the master rhetorician of all presidents.]

  3. Richard Brenne says:

    Joe, I always knew you were a Renaissance Person.

    As more of a Dark Ages Person myself, I’d like to follow up on this. I agree with all your beautiful analysis and would only like to add to it.

    Today Lincoln’s speech would be given to folks wearing IPods, tweeting and texting, “Dude, Mapquest the Gettysberg Address for me, I’m so lost.”

    We think everything is progress, but Pericles had to convince 18,000 Athenian Citizens on any course of action (including ending war, putting the soldiers to work building the Parthenon, and bringing Socrates to Athens) through only the power of his oratory, and 2400 years later we had a President (Bush) who could not use oratory to convince a well-trained dog to sit.

    All I’m saying is that we have to take your excellent principles and apply them to today and in all mediums.

    First we need to figure out our message, what we’re saying and what we hope to convince the audience to do. Then we need to realize that all mediums are about character, story and context.

    Just as you use these great principles, when I taught screenwriting my primary text was Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” analyzing and finding the common denominators among the great plays of all-time like Shakespeare’s. The principles applied to screenwriting for films as well.

    And I’d analyze the great artists and communicators who in all mediums were the most popular and critically acclaimed of their time and since, including Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Chaplin, Capra and the Beatles – proof that communication can be effective, meaningful and popular. I corresponded with Capra about spirituality and film over a period of years and he told me he felt that all the classics are about sacrificial love.

    The common denominator of these greatest communicators is that most were deeply caring, had things to say and mastered their mediums to say them. Twain and Chaplin became characters in addition to writing about them.

    When first performing comedy Woody Allen simply read his world-class jokes and audiences didn’t respond until he developed his on-stage persona, because people respond to people, not just content. You’re revealing yourself to us in this post and many others, Joe, and I think that’s a wonderful thing, helping your overall communication.

  4. Great work, Joe. Small nit. In the 2d paragraph, put the word “on” between “book” and “rhetoric”.

  5. Richard Brenne says:

    Now take all these principles from all these greatest communicators and add newer media like film to them. Look at the ends of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Casablanca” and especially “It’s a Wonderful Life” and in the context of the entire film it’s impossible not to be moved.

    Also John Ford’s direction of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is not only a masterpiece, but what the experience of hundreds of millions if not billions could ultimately be due to climate change. Look at the scene in the diner with a hard-nosed waitress and two truckers if you want to see the best short film within a film ever – the key characters are transformed from uncaring to deeply caring by each other.

    We’re fighting the Powers That Be represented by John Houston’s character in “Chinatown” or Louise Fletcher’s uncaring character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” More recently it’s hard not to be moved by “In America” or “Whale Rider”, especially when you’re the parent of a girl as you are, Joe. I showed my daughter such films with incredibly strong female characters and now she’s become one.

    The best segments of Colbert and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show can contain the comedic equivalent to this artistry and communication.

    Lastly, look at two commercials currently running, one is the Marine recruiting commercial with lots of panning shots of liberated Iraqi children, etc. Listen to the score and the cadence of the words, which are very concise. You might not agree with the message but it is masterful filmmaking.

    Then listen to Morgan Freeman in the Visa commercial about Olympic Speed Skater Dan Jansen. Listen to the use of the word “Jane.”

    This is the quality of communication we need to attain with climate change, in all mediums, taking the excellent principles you skillfully point out in this post and applying them to today. Or we could just get on talk radio and scream lies. Oh wait, that isn’t appealing to the better angels of our natures, but the opposite.

  6. Chris Dudley says:

    Seems to me that there has been a push to mock anything that is done for children that might restricts adults’ activities. Tipper Gore’s efforts on rude language, for example, were vilified. Hillery Clinton has been mocked as well for the book she wrote on child welfare.

    It is thus interesting that when James Hansen introduces grandchildren into the argument for urgent action on global warming, we see the cynical use of the Inhofe grandkids in reply. Is this an indication that the avuncular interest in grandchildren is too strong to be mocked? We will dismiss mother henning but not a patriarch’s interests? If so, then perhaps this provides a path to a resounding metaphor. Did Abram say no when called to leave Ur? Do we ignore science when called to leave oil? Or did independent Jacob’s heeding of Joseph’s call to go down into Egypt as America followed Rockefeller just prepare the way for escape now from bondage for the sake of David’s generation? Could the shining city on a hill be shining with independence that renewable energy will bring?

    This generation spanning view may be too powerful to be mock and thus contort our adversaries into silly stunts with little persuasive value.

  7. Leif says:

    Richard, #3: …” all the classics are about sacrificial love.”
    I am humbled by the oratory today: A few quotes if I may.

    “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”
    Bertrand Russell

    “If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years.”
    Bertrand Russell

    “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” B.R.

  8. ken levenson says:

    I recommend Gary Wills’ “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America”. Wills provides an amazing study of Lincoln’s language – very readable and not too long! (kinda like the speech.)

  9. John P says:

    Scientifically I can agree that the DC area snow storms could be caused by a warming atmosphere. But the Vancouver area has to be classified as weather, buckled Jet Stream and ElNino more than GW, with warm winds catching the far NW, whilst most of the US in sub-normal cold. Look at Baton Rouge; it tonight is suppose to be 10 degrees colder than Vancouver. Joe, you better you cannot blame all the weather on AGW, even though you sure give a good try. Sincerely, John T P

    [JR: Again, cooler than normal or warmer than normal ain’t news, especially for a day or two. Blow out temps for a month, though, well, that is a different matter. And I never come close to blaming “all the weather on AGW.” It’s El-Nino-plus, baby, but nobody knows what the plus is!!!]

  10. Leif says:

    John P, #9: … blame all weather on AGW? NO. But all extreme weather events, hot or cold, are consistent with the predictions of climatic warming. When you say “warming” I feel in your eyes you are looking at the one degree F and saying “big deal.” To envision the amount of energy it took to raise the top ~1,000 foot layer of the oceans and everything else on earth that one degree is equivalent to melting 11 Nimitz Class Aircraft Carriers every second of every day. That ENERGY gets concentrated and dispersed both in heat but also winds and yes even more vigorous jet streams or undulations. Both winter and summer!

  11. mike roddy says:

    No wonder you write well, Joe, you read the classics.

    We have daunting handicaps here. One is, instead of speaking poetically about birth and immortality, the main driver of climate communication is the fact that unchecked global warming will result in mass death and destruction. How do you say to people “we have to change our behavior, or billions may die”? It’s an unwelcome narrative, and creates big challenges.

    The second is that, as much as, like you, I am thrilled by language, it is a declining medium. As the father of a teenager who is actually quite a reader, it’s obvious that the young and many of the not so young have drifted away from words, and toward images. We need great movies- Avatar was a step in the right direction, but Hollywood financing tentacles led to it being told as a distant planet metaphor. The real thing, set in 2100 or so, makes a much better story.

    The other thing that struck me about Lincoln, who I adore, was thinking about John McCain’s copping his line every time he makes a speech by opening with “my friends”, with a frozen grin on his face. McCain is not a good enough actor to hide the insincerity. Lincoln was a deep and spiritual person, something we sense immediately even now.

    I think we need more people speaking from the heart, as you did here today. And the framing mechanism should be truth: the deniers just go out and lie like hell, all the time, even as they are accusing honest scientists of lying. This has to be duly noted in detail, and repeated. As Merlin told Arthur in Excalibur, the most important quality in a knight is Truth. Even in this scattered and cynical age, people get that. For those of us who are fighting alongside you, it should be our banner.

  12. Peter Sinclair says:

    When I use standard techniques of communication in my videos, deniers accuse me of trying to “control their minds”.


  13. Richard Brenne says:

    Peter (#12) –

    Since their minds are obviously out of control, this would seem to be a good thing.

  14. Sean Pool says:

    … But climate change / energy independence / clean energy technology innovation are all such complex problems… how to come up with a good extended metaphor that encapsulates all of them is a tough question! It’s not as simple as Abe’s house divided where it was a simple case of whether or not a nation will remain unified or split… I’d love to see a brain storm on this.

  15. toby says:

    Thanks for this post, Joe, from a lifelong admirer of Lincoln.

    It is agreed that the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugaural are the two greatest speeches. Who am I to argue? My personal favourite is the brief address Lincoln gave on leaving Springfield for Washington. It contains two simple sentences that have never cease to make me catch my breadth… in speaking of how much he owes to Springfield, he says

    “Here I have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children were born, and one is buried”.

    The musical balance of the sentences, the pathos of the last phrase, the sad thoughts of a man with intimations that he might not return … the effect has the grandeur of poetry, and great poetry at that.

    I contend though that Abe was more than a mere rhetoritician. He had a knack of thinking through everything from first principles, and it is the simplicity of elegance of expressing those principles that makes him the greatest writer and speaker that even held the office of President. His great speeches are classics not just of politics, but of literature.

  16. Richard Brenne says:

    If Lincoln’s Second Inaugural were to be summarized in a single word it would be “karma”. This is among the most spiritual concepts ever communicated by a modern leader.

    Thoughtlessly polluting, often without productivity, and exploiting or oppressing those poorer for their natural resources like fossil fuels or cheap labor also creates bad karma.

    Lincoln was saying in that second address that the Civil War appeared to be the karmic cost of slavery, and climate change could well be the karmic cost for polluting, exploiting and oppressing so that the richest few per cent of us (myself included) could live like kings.

  17. Leif says:

    Positive View Points: With the shift of vision from personal wealth and accumulation to sustainability of the greatest number at ever higher sustainable standards humanity just might have a chance. Corporations must look at the lifetime carbon foot print of each product and produce only things with near zero or even negative and then see that said products are available world wide in an economy conducive to ownership by all. Starting with the poor first. You rich guys can coast with what you got for the time being. If you feel guilty you could invest in the future success of us all.

    Or: You can sit tight and fight it out with the ever larger starving hoards coming over the horizon.

    It is a no brainer in my eyes.

  18. David B. Benson says:

    Put Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on your reading list as well.

  19. Robert says:

    Life’s fullest measure will be known by its people when they learn that ‘to possess a bounty now’ will never as great as it is to share a bounty forever. To share a sustainable force [Granite Renewable Wind] will beat any measure of an unsustainable force like Appalachian Broken Forever Mountaintops!