The Death of Eloquence

By Brantley Thompson Elkins


You all learned it in school, Or do they still teach such things in school? If they don’t, Lincoln’s Birthday offers an opportunity to acquaint you or reacquaint you with the Gettysburg Address:


Four score 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. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so  conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, 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.


Only 265 words here, incredibly short as speeches go. But not a word wasted, not a false note. How often to do you find that in political rhetoric? How often do you find eloquence in political discourse?

Lincoln was known for his eloquence, for a language deceptively simple in its style yet overwhelming in its emotional power, as with the close of his second Inaugural Address:


With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.


There were eloquent American speakers and writers before Lincoln, and after. We are all familiar with Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident;” and with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Beyond our shores, there was Winston Churchill’s appeal to his nation at the outset of World War II: “I have nothing to offer but blood, tears, toil and sweat.”

But try to imagine those words, or any like them, coming from the lips of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or either of the Bushes. And even when we do occasionally hear eloquent words from them, we can no longer be sure of their provenance. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” John F. Kennedy exhorted us – but were those really his own words, or those of a speechwriter? We wonder the same about flashes of wit like Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Lincoln wrote all his own speeches. His eloquence was entirely his own. But when we hear Barack Obama, who is often compared to Lincoln, we cannot be certain whether the eloquence is his inaugural address is entirely his own, or borrowed:


We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.


Does it matter? Does having a way with words signify that much, in the ordinary course of political discourse – or, more importantly, in times of crisis like our own? Maybe not; maybe “Yes we can!” (which came from Bob the Builder cartoons!) is every bit as effective as Lincoln’s “Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”

But words, after all, are an expression of thought. And if our leaders have no eloquent words they can call their own, perhaps it is because they have no eloquent thoughts they can call their own.

Something to think about.