Book Review: ‘The Eloquent President’ by Ronald C. White
Words matter to me. I
have been, in one format or another, a writer for twenty years. The first thing I usually notice in a song
is the lyrics. I have read hundreds of
books in the last five years, and wonder how many words I have read in that
span. I have seven tattoos, and only one
doesn’t have words. Words mattered to
Abraham Lincoln, a topic I shall pursue in Ronald C. White’s masterful The Eloquent President: A
Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words. It could be argued that our
sixteenth president was the most eloquent of them all, and certainly his ideas
– and his words – still resonant today.
White begins this book by referencing the Lincoln Memorial in
Washington, DC. The words of Lincoln’s
Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address are etched into the stone of
At the heart of The
Eloquent President is what is essentially a rhetorical analysis of
Lincoln’s words. One of my favorite
things I wrote in graduate school at Saint Joseph’s University was a rhetorical
analysis of those two famous addresses that are etched into the stone at the Lincoln
Memorial. While my analyses pale in
comparisons to White’s, the experience was still an enjoyable one for me. The
Eloquent President is the third book about Lincoln that I have read by
White, but The Eloquent President is the first of White’s books on Lincoln that
I have reviewed. The other books – both
highly enjoyable reads – are called A.
Lincoln (a biography on Lincoln) and Lincoln’s
Greatest Speech, which is about the Second Inaugural Address. I used the latter as a source material when I
wrote my rhetorical analysis.
The Eloquent President
is divided into eleven sections, each dedicated to a speech or writing of
Lincoln. They are: Farewell Address at Springfield (February 11,
1861), Speeches and Remarks (Train Trip From Springfield to Washington,
February 11-23, 1861), First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861), Message to
Congress (July 4, 1861), Reply to Horace Greeley (August 22, 1862), Meditation
on the Divine Will (September 2, 1862), Annual Message to Congress (December 1,
1862), Letter to the Rally in Springfield (August 26, 1863), Gettysburg Address
(November 19, 1863), “Little Speech” to Albert G. Hodges (April 4, 1864), and
Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865).
To me, the only glaring omission is the Emancipation Proclamation, which
Lincoln signed January 1, 1863. It is
truly that the proclamation is not a particularly eloquent piece of writing,
but rather quite lawyerly.
It is true that none of these words of Lincoln were written
and spoken in a vacuum. I give White
high praise for providing ample context for all eleven speeches and
writings. To not do so would have done
Lincoln’s words an injustice.
Despite the fact that I have read over a dozen Lincoln books
over the past several years, I highly enjoyed White’s analyses of Lincoln’s
words. The sound of words was very
important to Lincoln, and he often read his words aloud while writing. The
Eloquent President is truly for readers who are lovers of words and
rhetoric. Lincoln also spoke slower than
average, so his tone was very important.
I also learned from this book that Lincoln often went back to themes
again and again in his writing, and that he was his own editor, which is not a
suggested practice for writers. Lincoln
shuttered to speak extemporaneously, and often refused to do so. Lincoln knew the power – the lasting power –
that words had, especially from a president during the Civil War. Although the Civil War did not begin until
April 1865, some Southern states had already seceded by the time of Lincoln’s
presidency. Lincoln made only one speech
– on April 11, 1865 – after the Civil War had ended.
After all this time reading about Abraham Lincoln, he still
fills me with a sense of awe, reverence, and inspiration. It is true that I enjoy many of the books I
read, but I still have a special feeling of joy when I read about Lincoln. Before reading The Eloquent President, I did not have that joy in 2016 because,
much to my surprise, I did not read a book about Lincoln until this one, which
I read in the first half of December, 2016.
And I certainly had joy reading White’s wonderful book on the words of
Lincoln. As in his other books that I
have read, White writes with a keen and insightful sense of analysis. He is a writer who knows his subject very
well and thoroughly, which makes The
Eloquent President a highly enjoyable and informative read.
As I mentioned last week, you will likely be reading more
reviews of non-fiction books in 2017. It
is true that history was my first love, long before music or fiction. I hope 2017 is a great year of reading for
me, and for you, and I look forward to sharing some thoughts about reading and
some book reviews with you this year.