How To Have The Language Intelligence Of Abraham Lincoln, Part 1: Study The Figures Of Speech And Shakespeare

Part II: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist

What with a masterful must-see-movie on our 16th President and the general failure of Obama to be the rhetorically inspiring leader that climate hawks had hoped for on global warming, I’m going to repost my multi-part series on Lincoln.

This is material that comes from my recent book on rhetoric and politics — “Language Intelligence: Lessons On Persuasion From Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, And Lady Gaga,” which is available at [Kindle is here].  I must say the Spielburg movie — screenplay by Tony Kushner based in part on a Doris Kearns Goodwin book — creates a very plausible version of our most rhetorically gifted president. I like the fact that Lincoln constantly quotes Shakespeare in the movie (as he did in real life) but doesn’t tell you that he is. Also, I like the way he lets people get annoyed with his constant homespun stories — that is, as we’ll see, the very definition of irony, something Lincoln had mastered.

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 several hundred years (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

Yes, more observations and more analysis are valuable — which is why I 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).   As James Hansen says, we are still waiting for our climate Churchill.

One of Churchill’s defining characteristics was his mastery of rhetoric.  Indeed, at the age of 22 he wrote a brilliant, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric so.”  But this is the day we remember Lincoln, so I’m going to rerun my 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. I’ll also include here his use of irony. Part 2 will look at his use of two other key figures: 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 inHamlet “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.”

Part 2: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist

Irony, derives from the Greek eironeia (“dissimulation”), the term given to the action and speech of the eiron, or “dissembler,” a stock character in Greek comedy. The first recorded use is the Republic by Plato where “Socrates himself takes on the role of the eiron” and feigns ignorance as he asks “seemingly innocuous and naive questions which gradually undermine his interlocutor’s case,” trapping him “into seeing the truth.” Many Greeks did not see the truth the way Socrates did-they put him to death-so eiron also carries the sense “sly deceiver” or “hypocritical rascal.”

I have previously written about Socratic irony-whereby an eloquent, sophisticated speaker pretends to be a blunt everyman (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”).

Eirons are a stock character in popular culture, most commonly found on police dramas “” think Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Antony takes on the role of the eiron when he pretends to praise those who killed Caesar even as he whips up the Roman crowd against them. Antony says “I am no orator, as Brutus is, But-as you know me all-a plain blunt man.” It is a mark of eirons and wily orators that they accuse their opponents of being rhetoricians.

Lincoln opened his masterful February 1859 Cooper Union speech echoing Shakespeare’s Antony: “The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them.” (In Antony’s own words, “I only speak right on; I tell you that which you yourselves do know.”)


A second type of irony is best called “verbal irony.” For the Roman rhetoricians, such as Cicero,ironia denoted a rhetorical figure of speech “in which, for the most part, the meaning was contrary to the words.” To borrow a chiasmus from A Dictionary of Literary Terms, “at its simplest, verbal irony involves not meaning what one says, but saying what one means.”

The first mention in English is in 1502: ‘yronye “ … by the whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrarye.” Verbal irony is a trope, from the Greek for turn, since it is a figure of speech that turns or changes the meaning of a word away from its literal meaning (like metaphor).

Verbal irony is an essential element of certain kinds of speeches, especially those that occur in a debate or are similarly aimed at disputing a point or rebuking an opponent. Using verbal irony is a powerful means of turning your opponent’s argument against him or her, by revealing a deeper truth that utterly undercuts that argument. Verbal irony is the way to call your opponent a liar without calling your opponent a “liar.”

Two speeches capture the essence — and importance — of irony better than any other. The first is by Shakespeare, the second by Lincoln. Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech in the Roman Forum is a model of rhetorical brilliance — and was a model for Lincoln.

Brutus, in his Forum speech, had just convinced the crowd the assassination of Caesar was justified. He convinced them so well that some citizens were persuaded, ironically, that he should be the new Caesar. In making his case, Brutus used the word “honor” four times. Since Brutus was widely respected for his honor, since he directly links the citizens’ belief in him to that very honor, Antony needs to attack that quality in him, but do so indirectly, since Brutus has won the crowd completely over.

Cleverly, Antony himself uses the word “honorable” ten times in this one speech. He repeatedly says Brutus is an honourable man and that all of the conspirators are honourable. His irony is increasingly blatant:

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

With this drumbeat, Antony convinces the crowd that there was no justification for killing Caesar, which in turns means the murder was a dishonorable act. For a final knockout punch, Antony reveals the existence of Caesar’s will to the citizens, showing them the parchment he describes as the final testament of Caesar’s love for them. The citizens beg him to read the will. Antony slyly says

I have o’ershot myself to tell you of it.
I fear I wrong the honourable men
Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar; I do fear it.

The crowd is now his. One citizen shouts, “They were traitors,” and then spits out, “Honourable men!” This speech is a treatise on verbal irony.

Irony is about having the actual meaning of the words turn out to be the opposite of their literal meaning. Antony uses irony to negate the meaning of “honor” and “honorable” as it applies to Caesar’s murderers, using verbal daggers to repeatedly stab Brutus’s reputation. His speech is aimed at stirring the Roman citizens to revenge and murder. It works.

In his crowd-pleasing and career-making Cooper Union speech, Abraham Lincoln used the same rhetorical strategy as Antony-ironic repetition. Much as Antony was not directly debating Brutus, but giving a speech right after him, Lincoln was not directly debating Stephen Douglas, but giving a speech a few months after him. He was offering a very different answer on the crucial “question,” as Douglas called it: Is the federal government forbidden from controlling “slavery in our Federal Territories”? Lincoln starts by quoting Douglas for his New York audience:

In his speech last autumn, at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in The New York Times, Senator Douglas said:

“Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

I fully indorse this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse.

“What is the frame of government under which we live?” Lincoln asks rhetorically, as if to clarify Douglas. He immediately helps the audience, “The answer must be: ‘The Constitution of the United States.’ ” He does this so that he can define the “our fathers” in Douglas’s speech as the thirty-nine men who signed the Constitution: “I take these ‘thirty-nine,’ for the present,” Lincoln says, “as being ‘our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.’ ”

Then Lincoln begins his brilliant analysis to show that Douglas’s words were, in fact, ironic. Douglas had said plainly that the framers of the U.S. government not only understood the slavery issue better than the people in the mid-1800s, but also that they agreed with Douglas. Lincoln grants that the framers understood the slavery issue better but proves that they agreed with him. He examines the voting record of the thirty-nine framers of the Constitution to show that

“… twenty-one-a clear majority of the whole-certainly understood that no proper division of local from federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories; while all the rest probably had the same understanding. Such, unquestionably, was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution; and the text affirms that they understood the question better than we.

Just as Antony threw Brutus’s words back in his face, so, too, does Lincoln with Douglas’s words. In a masterpiece of ironical repetition comparable to Antony’s more famous speech, Lincoln repeats the word “fathers” thirty times, repeats the number “thirty-nine” twenty times, and repeats the entire phrase “Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live” and the phrase “better than we,” a remarkable twenty-two times, presumably with a more ironic tone of voice each time (just as a great actor playing Antony would with the word “honorable”), drawing considerable laughter and applause. This is the speech of a man who read Shakespeare often-and aloud.

With a single electrifying speech, masterfully using Socratic irony and verbal irony, as well as a number of other figures, Honest Abe jump-started a campaign that would win him the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency.

The Cooper Union speech is not as well known to the public as many of Lincoln’s as other speeches, but it is as masterful and as important to his career as any. The discussion here draws on Harold Holzer’s book, “Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President,” a must read for students of Lincoln or rhetoric.

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3 Responses to How To Have The Language Intelligence Of Abraham Lincoln, Part 1: Study The Figures Of Speech And Shakespeare

  1. Roger says:

    First off, I have to say your book is wonderful. I’ve read it twice already. My question is: Where can we find good resources on not only the figures of speech but how and why they’re used? Studying the Lincoln debates or the Bible is not going to do a lick of good unless we know what we’re looking for. Is there a book youd recommend that offers a complete rundown of it all?

  2. Joe Romm says:

    Not off hand. Let me think about this.

  3. Anon Teacher says:

    I have a science background, but of late I have found myself asking what conditions lead to the Enlightenment. What was it about those times that caused such an explosion of knowledge and wisdom. I am starting to believe that some of the great well-springs of this period are to be found in the classics, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and such. And I am starting to believe that the de-facto abandonment of classical studies in the academic world has left many of our academics drifting blindly, without a compass, most especially in the social sciences like economics, where Game Theory has for some become their “theory of everything” for human behaviour.

    Your book looks very interesting. Thank you for writing it.