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The negative capability of Abraham Lincoln: the first American pragmatist?

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 13 January 2009


Below is an historic picture. A picture of the occasion on which Lincoln gave what he thought was his best speech. The Second Inaugural. There he is reading from his notes. In surfing around the subject when I posted my piece on Obama’s rhetoric - Obama described Lincoln, as “a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer” who “tells us that there is power in words” and “tells us there is power in conviction” - I came upon this piece about the Second Inaugural. It’s sadly lacking in its subject’s concision, but it’s full of interesting titbits nevertheless.

Along with Gettysburg the Second Inaugural is one of the great speeches of the ages. Of all the great orators it seems Lincoln was one of the most original: One of the most modern. His speeches did not just rouse the spirits of those in his audience. In fact they often didn’t rouse their spirits but undermined their certitudes and invited reflection. Of all the great speechifiers (that I know of) he is by far the most downbeat. And his two great speeches are deliberately, provocative, indeed subversive in several ways.

They are extraordinarily short. But where the odd Churchill speech was short to make a point - “blood sweat and tears” was a quick few casual remarks to the House on taking office - Lincoln’s brevity is also making another point - about the inadequacy of words. Gettysburg is 272 words long when he had plenty of time and plenty to say. And the points he was making were far from simple - they were complex and profound. But the brevity - and the provocation of such brevity - is part of the point - invariably a negative point about what really can be said or done - something that then finds itself expressed and repeated in the words. “People will little note, nor long remember” “we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground”.

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Lincoln’s second inaugural wouldn’t quite fill the space John Hewson gets each week in the Fin. It was 703 words long. And he had lots to say. At a time when the whole world wanted to know the gories about the war, how things were going - whether “the surge” was working - Lincoln distanced his audience, beginning in a peculiarly distant voice. And though it’s a short speech, as in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln actually makes his points in a surprisingly prolix way.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.

Then, the first zinger.

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With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

I wonder if there is any other great and remembered speechifier whose diffidence knows as few bounds as Lincoln’s. Can anyone think of any examples in a famous speech that look at all like that last sentence? Perhaps there are, but if there are, they would, I suggest be rather ostentatious about the point of their ignorance - not expressed in a few words in the passive voice at the end of a short sentence.

His message was deeply sceptical of man’s capacity to ever understand what the hell was going on - or as he put it - what was God’s will. This was the great lesson that the frequently depressed and morose Lincoln learned from the war. That’s what he wanted to confront and to affront his audience with.

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First published in Club Troppo on February 17, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo. If you have a blog post you would like to nominate please send it to submissions@onlineopinion.com.au.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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