Words that reverberate down the centuries

Much is rightly made of Barack Obama’s rhetorical skills. His exceptional ability to transport his audience through the power of words was evident throughout his campaign and looks set to become a hallmark of his presidency.  Leaving aside the soaring wave of expectation about the content of his inauguration speech tomorrow, many will also be listening and analysing its form, the choice of words, the style and phrasing.    Obama has repeatedly emphasised the links between his own campaign and that of his illustrious predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.   Every moment of tomorrow’s celebrations will be richly symbolic.

The Lincoln Bible on which Obama will swear the Presidential oath of office has not been used for any presidential inauguration since 1861 (“as far as we can tell”, adds the Library of Congress blog).   The bible itself will also be the centrepiece of the exhibition “With Malice Toward None” (the opening words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address) that opens on 12 February in the Library of Congress to mark the 200th birthday of the 16th President.


It is a small book for such a momentous occasion.

The words of the oath are dictated by the Constitution, and following a custom started by George Washington in 1789, Obama will probably add “so help me God” after a recent legal action failed to prevent this public endorsement of religion.

Expectations are riding high on the inaugural address that will follow the swearing-in ceremony.   This is where a passing acquaintance with rhetoric might come in handy – for those listening,  I mean, because Obama is a past master in the art.   You’ll be able to spot all the rhetorical tricks recommended for public speaking since Aristotle who famously defined rhetoric as follows:

it has three divisions — (1) the speaker’s power of evincing a personal character which will make his speech credible (ethos ); (2) his power of stirring the emotions of his hearers (pathos ); (3) his power of proving a truth, or an apparent truth, by means of persuasive arguments (logos ).

One of the best known rhetorical devices is the tricolon:  a unit made up of three parts, each more emphatic than the last.  In a wonderful book by Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, the example given comes straight from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and is doubled at its conclusion:

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground…  We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Lincoln was also a skilled orator as the concluding passage of his first inaugural address on 4 March 1861 shows:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stre[t]ching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart 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.

Here are alliteration, repetition, and biblical phrasing combined with the language of the day.  It is wonderfully musical, but also persuasive – as it had to be to solve the deep divides between north and south and the crises facing the nation. It didn’t succeed and the next month saw the outbreak of civil war – as the continuation of David Reynold’s America: Empire of Liberty describes.

Roll forward nearly a century and a half and Obama’s presidency faces other divisions, whether economic, political, racial, social: between the poorest nations and the developed world,  in the Middle East, between religious extremisms of one kind or another, let alone right on our own doorstep where social divides still exist because of race, poverty and inequality.

In tomorrow’s speech Obama will undoubtedly strive to inspire all those listening and watching – and it is estimated that the ceremony will be transmitted in 45 languages to 1.5 billion worldwide – but watch out for the language and the power of words.   As Aristotle himself pointed out “The use of persuasive speech is to lead to decisions”.  But lasting decisions have to multilateral.  Obama will have to embrace all of his listeners – in America and across the world.  Again, it is fascinating how Aristotle also reminds us of this when he wrote:

“In speeches of display we must make the hearer feel that the eulogy includes either himself or his family or his way of life or something or other of the kind. For it is true, as Socrates says in the Funeral Speech, that ‘the difficulty is not to praise the Athenians at Athens but at Sparta’.”

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