Thursday, March 26, 2015

Abraham Lincoln: "C" List Speaker?

I hold a grudging admiration of Abraham Lincoln. His personal story inspires and amazes. A fitting emblem of a hardier time, he knew the cost of physical labor, the importance of self-improvement, and the value of reasoned explication of the principles to which he adhered. At the same time, he held an odious opinion regarding the ability of whites and blacks to co-exist. Worse, in pursuit of saving the Union, he undertook a regrettable assault on civil liberties, adopted a program of involuntary servitude, and imposed an unconstitutional income tax.

Still, this autodidact was a master rhetorician. Consider, for example the profundity of his 272 word address at the dedication of a battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg:

Lincoln was not the marquis speaker that day in Gettysburg. That honor fell to Edward Everett, a renowned American orator, Massachusetts governor, member of Congress, and President of Harvard University. His oration, which preceded Lincoln’s, extended two hours. Lincoln’s remarks, by contrast, extended two minutes. Everett recounted the battle of Gettysburg, illuminated its causes, costs, and consequences, and likened this act of State – the dedication of a national battlefield cemetery – to the solemn and somber honors by the Athenians to noble and honored war dead.

For all its force, emotion and power, Lincoln’s 272 words are, to this day, among the most recognized of public remarks. Brevity, however, was not his only rhetorical tool.

Lincoln, a lawyer, mastered facts, sifted principles, and spoke plainly. Among his extended speeches, his speech at the Cooper Institute in 1859 is my favorite. Lincoln’s address is often referred to as the Cooper Union address. It was one of a series sponsored by the Brooklyn, New York church of leading abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. When Lincoln agreed to give a speech on the condition that it might be a political one, the Young Republicans of New York assumed sponsorship of the event and the venue was moved to the Cooper Institute.

In the Cooper Union address, line by line, precept by precept, Lincoln built a case that soundly and completely refuted the two year old decision of the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford. In Dred Scott, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress lacked power under the Constitution to restrict slavery in the federal territories. Lincoln’s scholarly refutation built the case that the majority, at least, of the Framers of the Constitution expressly held the view that Congress would have power to regulate and restrict slave-holding in the territories.

But Lincoln did more than refute the contemptible Dred Scott decision (contemptible for its miasmic contention that blacks were not, nor could ever be, citizens within the meaning of that term as used in the Constitution). He set in sharp relief the severe conflict that would fulminate and then culminate in the War between the States:

Lincoln’s Cooper Union address, and others made on the same East Coast and New England tour, was the equivalent in Lincoln’s day to modern politicians’ trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. As it turned out, the October 1859 address likely set in motion Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate for President.

In the immediate aftermath of the speech, a small scandal threatened.

It was alleged that Lincoln was paid to give the speech. In his correspondence, in fact, he acknowledges receiving the sum of Two Hundred Dollars for expenses and the like. By today’s standards, that seems a modest sum. Allowing for inflation and the change in the value of the dollar between 1859 and today, he received then the equivalent of about $5700.00 in 2015 dollars for the address (although, as it seems, he also made substantial inroads to the Republican nomination with the speech).

Imagine that! Fifty seven hundred dollars paid in order to host, and to hear from, an attorney not then leading in polling inside his own political party. Second-, even third-tier, colleges and universities could afford such a speaker. But with such a discount rate, such a speaker would likely have been priced out as insufficiently lucrative to be managed by any self-respecting speakers’ bureau, according to this post from Nick Morgan.

In fact, as it turns out, Lincoln’s $200.00/$5700.00 speech marks him as quite the piker. In contrast, according to this post, Bill and Hillary Clinton each price out at about $200,000.00 per speech. Another way to think about those numbers is their value in 1859 dollars. It turns out to be a less-than-flattering comparison for Mr. Lincoln. Lincoln speaks for $200.00; Bill and Hillary can only be had for about $7,000.00. Even a time-traveling Karl Rove, the Republican operative, would have drawn a more princely sum than Lincoln, his current draw of about $25,000.00 per speech would have cost $825.00 in 1859 dollars.

And there you have it. Whether tyrant, or savior of the Union … the Great Emancipator or jackbooted thug. The most polarizing and passionate and reasoned man of his, and of many other, generations, a C List speaker!