MSU professor Ron Dorr analyzes the text of a stirring speech
(Editor's note: With Presidents' Day coming up, Ron Dorr, Professor of Rhetoric and Humanities at Michigan state University's James Madison College, reflects on the text of Abraham Lincoln's farewell speech, which was given Feb. 11, 1861.)
One hundred fifty years ago this month, Abraham Lincoln gave what I consider his finest address.It was more personal and moving than even his best letters of condolence.It was as humane and affirming, amid loss, as the celebrated Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.It was a model of leave-taking.
The speech was his farewell address, spoken before 1,000 of his friends and fel- low citizens of Springfield, Illinois, on February 11, 1861.Three versions of the speech appeared immediately.One was probably the closest to Lincoln’s actual words — published in the Illinois State Journal.Another was published in Harper’s Weekly.The version familiar to us was dictated to his secretary, John Nicolay, shortly after the train had left, winding its way 1,904 miles to Washington, D. C.
Here is the revised text:“My Friends — No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting.To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man.Here my children have been born, and one is buried.I now leave, notknowing when, or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.Without the assistance of that Diving Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed.With that assistance I cannot fail.Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
According to a neighbor, the President-elect’s “breast heaved with emotion and he could scarcely command his feelings sufficiently to commence.”For a man not often given to self-disclosure, Lincoln spoke in first-person singular and in revealing ways.In his spoken remarks, the fifth sentence was this:“To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am.”In the revised version, however, the second sentence reads thus:“To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”The audience has become third-person, not second-person “you.”Already, on the train that had just pulled out of Springfield, he was emotionally distancing himself from Springfield, his friends, and his neighbors.He was already moving from the past — memories of 25 years and an emotional parting—into an uncertain future that would call on the resources of God as well as the Springfield he was leaving behind.
Lincoln’s words were characteristically brief, humane, and hopeful.The sentiments of departing are often deep and ambiguous.“Parting is all we know of heaven,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “And all we need of hell.”Here the sentiments include deep sadness, gratitude, friendship, devotion, trust, reverence, yet uncertainty about the future.The subjects include birth and death, marriage and the family, aging, American history, patriotism, religious faith, prayer, separation, grief, and farewell.Such sentiments and subjects can lend themselves to hackneyed expression.
To such emotional matter, however, Lincoln has brought a clear mind and rhetorical skill.The expression was deeply emotional.In the midst of a disintegrating Union, Lincoln admitted his own limitations, need for support from the American people, and ultimate reliance on God.All three were a foretaste of what he would say in his trip to the nation’s capital.
The Farewell Address is also a rhetorical gem.The revised version contains nine sentences totaling 150 words.Sentences vary.The polished version contains four simple sentences, one compound sentence, and four complex sentences.It includes three loose sentences, three periodic sentences, and three balanced sentences.Sentence length varies from 6 to 27 words.Modifiers or qualifiers, not the subject, often begin his sentence.
Parallelism — repeating certain parts of speech while changing the words — stands out:verbs (“have lived” and “have passed”), adverbs, adjectives, prepositional phrases, and introducers of a subordinate clause.To such standard parallelism, Lincoln adds antithesis:“Here my children have born, and one is buried.”In the last sentence, Lincoln achieves a chiasmus, or inverted parallelism:“To His care [I am] commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me.”Staircase, or step parallelism occurs in sentence eight as Lincoln moves outward from himself (“go with me”) to his audience (“remain with you”) and God’s presence everywhere (“be every where for good”).
The movement of the entire piece is that of increasing breadth and intensity.Lincoln lingers on the past (sentences 2-4), captures the poignancy of the present (sentences 1 and 5), and shifts into the future, which was most pressing on his mind (sentences 6-9).The trinity of time is especially apparent in sentences 5 and 8.Each step of the journey is more and more significant:present pain, past consolation, present uncertainty, and future reliance on Almighty God.Coupled with the recurring parallelism and contrast between past associations and future uncertainties, Lincoln’s expanding vision and trinity of time provide all the coherence needed here.
Most of this variety, parallelism, and coherence is unobtrusive.Lincoln’s wording does not call attention to itself.Who notices the iambic meter in much of sentences 1, 3, and 8?Powerful emotions prevail, restrained, even constrained, by Lincoln’s mind, which has balanced thought and feeling.
The Lincoln we know as master rhetorician as well as president and world statesman was already emerging a day before his 52nd birthday.