The Power of Eloquence

Professor Hart has an Op-Ed in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the faulty assumption that the ability to speak eloquently and the ability to ‘get things done’ are mutually exclusive. He notes that many of our most celebrated presidents were gifted speakers, including JFK, FDR, and Lincoln. About Lincoln:

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln wanted to urge the Southern states not to secede. His future Secretary of State William Seward submitted this sentence, which Lincoln then turned into one of the most famous passages in American oratory:

The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Not bad. Seward certainly was an able writer.

But Lincoln made much more of it, adding alliteration, changing “proceeding” to “stretching,” changing “guardian angel of our nation” to the far superior “better angels of our nature,” along with other careful touches:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living hearth and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

“Over this broad land” is masterful, its inclusiveness suggesting union. Lincoln was gifted; he had studied the King James Bible, Shakespeare and, very importantly, Walt Whitman, memorizing passages from “Leaves of Grass,” responding to its rhythms and vast inclusiveness.

Read the whole thing.