Ron White

Photo by Lisa Blackburn/Courtesy of Huntington Library


Two of the best-known speeches in American history are so brief that both could fit within the confines of this article. They were both written by a “plain homespun” country lawyer, who described his own education as “defective.”

Seven score years after his assassination, Abraham Lincoln is — using a phrase that would shock the most homely of presidents — undeniably hot. He graces magazine covers and even endures tabloid-type probing into his sexuality and suitability for Prozac.

There’s a Steven Spielberg motion picture on Lincoln in the works, countless biographies and monographs, a dazzling new $150 million museum and library in Springfield, Ill., and an upcoming bicentennial of his birth in 2009.

Yet some one-dimensional views of Lincoln — Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, the religious skeptic — remain as stolid as the Lincoln Memorial and persistent as the penny.

“We freeze-frame famous people,” says Ronald C. White Jr. (WCAS61), a Lincoln scholar and professor of American intellectual and religious history at San Francisco Theological Seminary. “We don’t allow them to grow and change.”

In his two recent books — Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon & Schuster, 2002) and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (Random House, 2005) — White provides a dynamic, theologically nuanced view of Lincoln’s life and artistry.

(His efforts in dissecting Lincoln’s speeches and writings follow in the tradition of Northwestern history professor Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg [Simon & Schuster, 1992].)

Along with George Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and Gettysburg Address — 701 and 271 words respectively — are not only considered literary gems but also foundational documents in the nation’s political memory.

From White’s writings it is clear that Lincoln’s religious views grew in depth throughout the Civil War, and these shifts culminated in the Second Inaugural.

“It’s a profound speech,” said White at a recent talk in Wilmette, Ill. “Its religious dimensions haven’t always been appreciated or understood. … He’s making the assertion that God is working through history, but he almost never uses the word Jesus or Christ.”

At the meeting, White distributed Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will,” dated September 1862, and discussed core points made in his Second Inaugural on March 4, 1865.

David Zarefsky (C68, GC69, 74), Owen L. Coon Professor of Argumentation and Debate and a professor of communication studies at Northwestern who has written extensively on Lincoln, says White’s background allows him “a very rich understanding of the theological significance of the Second Inaugural.”

Michael F. Bishop, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, says White is a “gifted teacher” and “part of a small vanguard of scholars who are taking the role of religion in [Lincoln’s] life and statesmanship seriously.”

White, who was born in Minnesota and grew up in Glendale, Calif., originally wanted to be a sportswriter or sports announcer, but Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln writings were as much an early influence as listening to the Dodgers.

“At 14 or 15 I bought a boxed set of the Sandburg biography of Lincoln,” White says. “I read it so thoroughly that I had to use string to keep it intact.”

Coming to Northwestern in the late 1950s, he nurtured his love of history in the Introduction to Western Civilization class taught by the late Richard M. Brace.

White, who later received his master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and his doctorate from Princeton University, had his interest in Lincoln reawakened while teaching a Lincoln seminar at the University of California, Los Angeles, and visiting a 1993 exhibition on Lincoln at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., where he is a fellow. White and his wife, Cynthia, live nearby in La Canada.

A distinguishing aspect of White’s work is his interest not just in what Lincoln said, but how he said it. “ Lincoln wrote for the ear,” says White. “Most of us write for the eye.”

His speeches were carefully prepared, constantly rewritten and continually parsed for the right word and phrase. The story that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope en route to the battlefield is pure myth, according to White.

Lincoln’s speeches were filled with biblical allusions, artful alliteration, prose poems and parallel structures. Such was his sophistication that scholars say Aristotle would have admired Lincoln’s rhetoric and trusted his ethos. “ Lincoln understood the power of words,” says White, “and he led the nation through his words.”

The actor Raymond Massey (H59) portrayed Lincoln using a deep baritone voice, but in reality, says White, “ Lincoln had a tenor voice, and at the beginning of his speeches he was very nervous.” But he spoke slowly, and his voice carried well.

In addition, Lincoln not only used an economy of words when he spoke, he also spoke infrequently. He avoided extemporaneous talk and was prudent in thought and deed. Furthermore, Lincoln was full of paradoxes and comfortable with ambiguity. Fierce and unyielding in winning the bloodiest conflict on U.S. soil — more than 600,000 died in the Civil War — he was, in the end, conciliatory and without malice to the vanquished.

White has no trouble seeing Lincoln’s relevance today: “People are still hungering for authentic leadership. … Many of our present leaders are not good communicators.” When asked about Lincoln’s leadership qualities, he ticked off this list:

  • “He had a wonderful sense of history and American history.”
  • “He always tried to understand the audience by saying: ‘I know that many of you are critical of me. …’”
  • “He trusted in his ability to change the minds of people.”
  • “He moved increasingly from rational arguments (his First Inaugural) to imaginative, evocative and religious arguments … and that’s real, powerful rhetoric.”

Like all great leaders, Lincoln was made in the crucible of his times, not born. As a lawyer in Springfield and Senate candidate, he was a notable stump speaker, but in the White House his words carried a force unmatched by military might.

“The First Inaugural is an attempt of a lawyer to convince people by rational argument with an appeal to the Constitution,” White said in an interview with Abraham Lincoln Online. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but Lincoln came to discover that persuasive rhetoric was not simply an appeal to argument. At Gettysburg and in the Second Inaugural he moves to the dimension of persuasion that is rooted in a much deeper kind of emotive way of speaking.

“This is why his later speeches are better — deeper, wider and broader — than the earlier speeches. They’re also leaner and tauter; less is more.”

Dan Cattau is a Chicago-area writer.

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