How to be as persuasive as Abe Lincoln, Part 2: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Part 1 looked at how Lincoln taught himself the art of persuasion aka rhetoric. Lincoln was a master of three key figures — irony, metaphor, and extended metaphor, as I’ll discuss in Parts 2, 3, and 4.

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, C¦sar 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 menWhose 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.