19th Century Rhetoric, Campaigning & A Poem by Abraham Lincoln

After listening to “Abraham Lincoln: His Hand and His Pen” from the wonderful Washington Post podcast “Presidential,” I wondered how I’ve managed to go so long without reading the famous writings, speeches and letters from the 16th president. Before I get into his work, I want to get some nagging questions out of the way. Below, I went on an internet dive into some topics on 19th century campaigning, political rhetoric and Lincoln’s first steps into the influential man we know of today. Creating a general timeline of Lincoln’s life has especially helped me become immersed in the 1840’s -1860’s America.

Rhetoric: the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.

The ability to sway public opinion through speeches and political drama has always been of utmost importance for a presidential nominee. In Abraham Lincoln’s 19th century political landscape, speeches that managed to reach local and national press was the only path to political success. Their speeches needed to be well-versed, well-spoken and well-received. And if one of these elements was weaker than the other, his influential power would suffer. Research has shown that contemporary campaigning also favors memorable speeches for popularity gain. This is over foreign campaigning that have zero impact and domestic campaigning that hurts popularity (Brace and Hinckley, 1993). However complex modern politics have become, public opinion is manipulated in many of the same ways as the days of Abraham Lincoln with a common thirst for charismatic, relatable partisan candidates. 

In the mid-19th century voter turnout for political events such as speeches, rallies, announcements, and debates were attended by roughly 80% of those eligible during national elections (Glasser, Salmon 1995), which is quite a percentage considering the limitations to travel at the time. Over 150 years ago, citizens were readily involved in politics mostly for the entertainment of it all. The important business of politics was second best to the show a candidate touted for his audience. Campaigning was something of an art form, and if there was one man that trumped above the rest, it was Abraham Lincoln. 

The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates for the Illinois Senate seat attracted 10 - 15 thousand voters at many of the seven events. These debates were particularly fascinating because debating publicly for a senate seat was unusual. It was state legislature who voted for senate, not the people - not at this time at least. In fact, the popularity of the Lincoln-Douglas debates became so famous, most assumed it was a part of their presidential campaign. 


Early use of the terms “stump speech,” “to stump,” and “taking to the stump” were birthed in the early 1800s. The meaning behind it was simple. Speeches by politicians, usually in rural areas, were often spouted upon the stumps of trees. This implied that such lands were infantile and still being cleared - fertile ground for the ambitious American politician. However, the experienced politician from the city rather disliked the idea of a backwoods stump speaker and regularly mocked the rural trend. (McNarma, 2019)

If 19th century campaigning was a strategic battle plan, the south’s vote was its best shot at victory. They had all the votes. And they happened to be particularly uneducated and illiterate, so a passionate, relatable speech void of aristocratic policy talk was a relief. And so, the unfiltered frontier personality was soon embraced by much of the east. The stump speech was not an express ticket to political success, but it sure helped tremendously because “the man who could not make himself heard did not get elected.” (Davis, 1982)

"I shall have my hands full. He is the strong man of the party — full of wit, facts, dates — and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West." - Stephen Douglas (about Abraham Lincoln)

Leading up to the Civil War, speeches and debates were colorful, passionate and at times full of rage and name-calling. Nothing has changed in America. Our ambition rages on two centuries later. And so too, our love for entertainment over substance. The days of Lincoln, Clay and Calhoun made for quite a series of shows across America. They were about serious topics however, topics the public shared feverishly; slavery and the future of the Union. Lincoln’s rhetoric was poetic and easy to understand. He could be crude, yes, using words like “howdy” often, but he also spoke on complex issues in a simple fashion. His archaic approach and sing-song delivery was captivating. A clear reflection of everyday issues replaced a complex web of empty political speak. (Dillard, Shen 2012) And he wasn’t afraid to take jabs at his opponents either.

George Forquer, a Whig to Democrat, had been given lofty incentives by the Jackson administration. And upon Abraham’s delivered speech for the Whigs, the party he occupied at the time, Forquer criticized Lincoln’s youth as he had only been 27. This is how Lincoln responded:

"I am not so young in years as I am in the tricks and trades of a politician. But, live long or die young, I would rather die now, than, like the gentleman," — at this point Lincoln pointed at Forquer — "change my politics, and with the change receive an office worth three thousand dollars a year. And then feel obliged to erect a lightning rod over my house to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God."

The written and spoken word, his love for theater and attraction to poetry were Lincoln’s most potent leadership tools. His love for language started early and out of necessity. Formal education for the young boy on the frontier barely amounted to one year. And so, he had to teach himself, scribbling poetry and arithmetic where he could. This thirst for self-learning continued into later years, where he’d teach himself land surveying and law. One document recovered from Lincoln’s early days includes this short poem:

“Abraham Lincoln,
his hand and pen,
he will be good,
but god knows when.”

His stepmother, Sarah, nourished young Lincoln’s passion for reading against his father’s wishes who preferred the boy head straight into the workforce. However, his father did pass down a skill for the spoken word, even if it was unknowingly. Lincoln would gather all his little friends around the town and tell his father’s jokes verbatim, with mimicking mannerisms and all. He studied his father’s jokes to his buddies from the next room. The way he crafted punchlines, when to pause for laughter, he learned all he needed to know.

And where he used the written word for expression and mood stabilizing, the spoken word was often used as a defense mechanism. His tales and jokes were met with laughter but as he grew older, his lighthearted crudeness was sometimes inappropriate (Cunningham, Kroll 2016). But who is to blame him for wanting a laugh in troubling times? Lincoln once said, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” Upon his entrance into politics, Lincoln’s speeches quickly became his steady sword and writing his impenetrable shield.


Canto: one of the sections into which certain long poems are divided.

His speeches were crafted with surgical care, rearranging paragraphs and lines every which way for utmost impact, for laughter and heaping sighs. I would like to discuss Lincoln’s precision and how it developed over time after my reading is complete. But first, I want to look at this famous poem the future president wrote to better understand where the roots of his talents grew, and also, his distinct personality.

My Childhood Home I See Again (1844): In the fall of 1844, after visiting his childhood home, Abraham Lincoln described his old town “as unpoetical as any spot of the earth.” Still, he felt compelled to turn the memories of his home and his mother and sister who lay buried there into poetry. In part II (second canto), Lincoln’s subject is Matthew Gentry, a childhood friend who still lived there in a “wretched condition.”

“He is three years older than I, and when we were boys we went to school together. He was rather a bright lad, and the son of the rich man of our poor neighborhood. At the age of nineteen he unaccountably became furiously mad, from which condition he gradually settled down into harmless insanity. When, as I told you in my other letter I visited my old home in the fall of 1844, I found him still lingering in this wretched condition. In my poetizing mood I could not forget the impression his case made upon me." - Abraham Lincoln (about Matthew Gentry)

Canto 1
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My childhood's home I see again, And saddened with the view; And still, as memory crowds my brain, There's pleasure in it too.Lincoln returns to Indiana after briefly campaigning for Henry Clay's failed presidential bid. Here, we witness a shift from young, crude frontier boy to mature man waving goodbye to his formative years. His frontier background served him well politically.
I hear the loved survivors tell How nought from death could save, Till every sound appears a knell, And every spot a grave. I range the fields with pensive tread, And pace the hollow rooms, And feel (companion of the dead) I’m living in the tombs.Lincoln had been known to suffer with depression, or melancholia, as it was described then. Much of his sadness stemmed from his early exposure to death at the hands of disease both in his family and his town. Lincoln rarely wrote about these feelings, and so, it surely sheds light on his reserved nature (Willen 2015).
Canto 2
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But here's an object more of dread Than ought the grave contains A human form with reason fled-- While wretched life remains.Lincoln compares the sadness of his friend's sickness to the sadness of the dead in their graves. This shows Lincoln's compassion for those less fortunate. Perhaps this canto is proof of his care for mental health.
When terror spread, and neighbours ran, Your dang'rous strength to bind; And soon a howling crazy man, Your limbs were fast confined.What is determined by these line is the frontier town's fear of a wild man who has shed his voice of reason. In other words, community crumbles when order is no more. Steady and mindful reason is an important philosophy for Lincoln, contrary to an unruly mob mentality.
How plaintively your mournful song, Upon the still night rose. I've heard it oft, as if I dreamed, Far-distant, sweet, and lone; The funeral dirge it ever seemed Of reason dead and gone.Lincoln still thinks about his friend often, despite his turn in nature. He still feels a connection with Matthew that is "sweet." His ambivalnce, or strong contradictory feelings, toward those who suffer and commit indecencies is a defining characteristic. He often shows compassion for those deemed unworthy by society. And often, he may find their indecencies criminal but their intentions or personhood good natured.

After reading this poem, I got to thinking about nostalgia and its power as a political tool. I scratched the surface of this topic with a look at only one study but I plan on going deeper soon.

Although nostalgia has been a political tool for centuries, not by every politician but by many, Lincoln focused solely on the present and the future. He rarely promised his supporters the glory days of the past. He mentions only the intentions of the founding fathers in regards to slavery. Despite Lincoln’s presidential opponent, Stephen Douglas’ goal for a Jacksonian future, he too did not use nostalgia often. In fact, Nostalgia in the early to mid 19th century was used only sparingly in U.S. politics as it was still a new country expanding its boundaries. The word nostalgia was associated with a troubled, diseased person - one who could not bare being away from their home, or one who could not stop thinking about the past. After the Civil War, nostalgia was “something to be ashamed of, that those who suffered from it were unmanly, idle and weak-willed. [American military doctor Theodore Calhoun] proposed curing it with a healthy dose of public ridicule and bullying.” (Beck 2013).

Stacey Menzel Baker and Patricia F. Kennedy from the University of Nebraska categorize nostalgia into 3 terms: “real nostalgia,” “simulated nostalgia,” and “collective nostalgia.”

Real Nostalgia: bittersweet yearning

Simulated Nostalgia: having nostalgia through the lens of someone else.

Collective Nostalgia: longing for the past represented by a community, culture, generation, or a nation. This is used in politics often, especially in times of national hardship or perceived hardship.

There are two nostalgic elements that they also define. “Imagery implications” and “emotion and effect.”

Imagery Implications is when imagery and visual components help us relive the past. If imagery is used by a politician, for instance, in order to sell the glory of the past, the nostalgia that is already imbedded in the viewer’s mind is extracted and dwelled on, even if that memory or feeling has faded. Here are Stacey and Patricia’s propositions in regards to the imagery tactic:

  • The more direct the experience, the more vivid the memories.

  • The more intense the nostalgia, the easier it is to image being in the past.

What these two ladies call Emotion and Effect is an exploratory look at the direct relation between nostalgia and both the emotional effect and the affect for an ad. The study instructed 86 college students to look at a magazine ad and to state their feelings. Next, they were asked to look at 6 attitude items that measured a student’s general like or dislike of an ad, and 6 nostalgic items that measured their nostalgic response. The results determined that nostalgia and general attitude as two distinctly different factors, in that the nostalgia for an ad does not always determine the effectiveness of it. (Menzel and Kennedy, 1994)

  • Brace, Paul, and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. BasicBooks, 1993.

  • Glasser, Theodore L., and Charles T. Salmon. Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent. Guilford Press, 1995.

  • McNamara, Robert. “Definition of Stump Speech.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 29July 2019, www.thoughtco.com/stump-speech-definition-1773348.

  • Davis, William C. “‘Taking the Stump’: Campaigning in Old-Time Kentucky.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 80, no. 4, 1982, pp. 367–391. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23379655.

  • “The SAGE Handbook of Persuasion Developments in Theory and Practice.” The SAGE Handbook of Persuasion Developments in Theory and Practice, by James Price. Dillard and Lijiang Shen, SAGE, 2013, pp. 11–13.

  • Cunningham, Lillian, and Michelle Krowl. “Abraham Lincoln: His Hand and His Pen.” Presidential, The Washington Post, 24 Apr. 2016.

  • Willen, Sara. “Abraham Lincoln Autobiographical Letter with Poem ‘My Childhood Home I See Again.’” Shapell, 25 May 2015, www.shapell.org/historical-perspectives/between-the-lines/abraham-lincoln-autobiographical-letter-poem-childhood-home-see/.

  • Beck, Julie. “When Nostalgia Was a Disease.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 14 Aug. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/when-nostalgia-was-a-disease/278648/.

  • Stacey Menzel Baker and Patricia F. Kennedy (1994) ,"Death By Nostalgia: a Diagnosis of Context-Specific Cases", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds.Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 169-174.