A debut scholarly work explores Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable talent for rhetorical persuasion.
Lincoln’s meteoric rise to political prominence was an unlikely one—he was born to uneducated farmers; his political accomplishments prior to the presidency were modest; and he was an uncommonly awkward, even unattractive man. But Roda argues he was also a brilliant wordsmith, preternaturally capable of changing the opinions of others through the eloquence of his speeches and writings. The author diligently tracks Lincoln’s evolution as a public speaker, beginning with an impromptu debate he had at age 21 with an itinerant preacher in 1830. A year later, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, and joined a debating society. He honed his skills not only as a politician, but also as a lawyer—over the course of his legal career, he was involved in more than 5,000 extraordinarily diverse cases. Despite the brevity of the book, Roda provides an impressively synoptic account of Lincoln’s rhetorical career, spanning his courtroom experiences, chief speeches, including his inaugural addresses, and his famous debates with Stephen Douglas. In addition, the author charts the transformation of Lincoln’s style from flowery flourishes to one more restrained and elegant. Roda ably makes the case that Lincoln’s achievement as a persuader of others is historically unmatched: “Abraham Lincoln may be the most accomplished advocate the country has ever produced. There have been many Americans adept at making a case, to be sure, but who has accomplished more at this than Abraham Lincoln?” The author’s research is painstakingly meticulous, and the conclusions he draws are cautiously judicious. And while he concedes that the work’s “facts are not new” and “can be found in any number of books and articles about Lincoln,” he supplies an analysis of the president’s oratorical prowess as astute as any other single-volume treatment. Moreover, Roda also helpfully anatomizes Lincoln’s rhetorical success into five distinct virtues: “credibility, clarity, fact, logic, and emotion.” The author’s study is a valuable resource for historians and rhetoric scholars alike.
An incisive Lincoln survey accessible to amateur historians.