As I get ready to give more speeches related to my new book, “Beyond Genius…”, and RenMen, this article on Lincoln and his genius for using the ‘negative’ as a rhetorical device in speaking and writing, should prove a useful resource – Scott
Now that Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln,” has sparked extraordinary interest in Abraham Lincoln as a behind-the-scenes persuader, it may be a good time to take a look at an aspect of his most persuasive writing. In virtually all the most memorable passages of Lincoln’s writings, there is a feature that plays a critical role—namely, the rhetorical use of the negative. This is not to say that Lincoln was a naysayer or negative thinker, but rather that he demonstrated an acute understanding of the power of negation in language and was unusually adept at putting that force to use.
Philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke argues that the negative is intimately connected to our sense of morality, if not actually responsible for it. Law, ethics and religion, he contends, are all built around the “thou-shalt-nots.” This is one way of accounting for the power that the negative has in language and human affairs.
It is this power that Lincoln tapped into. As with Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, both of whom had a comparable gift, this may be an aspect of Lincoln’s literary genius, but it may also owe something to the fact that dogged opposition was his lot in the major political struggles of his life: Jacksonian political rule, the hegemony of the Democratic Party, the Mexican War, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Decision, the expansion of slavery, and the dissolution of the Union.
It must also be acknowledged that slavery, the predominating factor in Lincoln’s political struggles, was no ordinary problem and, because of its moral dimension, elevated the passions on all sides. Notably reserved and self-possessed, Lincoln admitted that the prospect of the extension of slavery into the free territories in 1854 “aroused him as he had never been before.” From that point on, almost all of Lincoln’s rhetorical efforts were in the service of resisting both the expansion of slavery and the destruction of the Union, a resistance which gave his negative constructions a moral focus. “If slavery is not wrong,” he famously wrote, “nothing is wrong.”
For some examples of the ways that Lincoln makes rhetorical use of the negative, the antithesis is a good place to start. To address the all-important issue of public opinion in a democracy, he first crafted on paper and then proclaimed in the first of his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” In his closing speech in the 1858 campaign, he summarized the constitutional stance his opponent had worked so hard to distort: “The legal rights of the Southern people to reclaim their fugitives I have constantly admitted. The legal right of Congress to interfere with their institutions in the states, I have constantly denied.” In writing down a concise version of his extemporaneous Springfield Farewell Address after delivery, he wrote: “Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him