It seems appropriate as an inauguration and Martin Luther King’s birthday approach to write a little bit about rhetoric. Besides, I just read a very interesting piece about inaugural addresses by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker (January 12, 2009, but unfortunately not available online). She surveys inaugural speeches and briefly compares Lincoln’s first inaugural address, given in March 1861 as Civil War was breaking out, to his second, when the Civil War had already raged for four years. Poignantly, Lincoln would be dead within a month of his second speech. But, for now, let’s look (as Lepore does) at the ending of the first speech. (Can you see how the cadences of delay and interruption, so common in the nineteenth century, are affecting me?) Lincoln ends without ending:
I am loath 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, stretching from every battlefield 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.
It hardly needs saying that a great speaker needs a great ear and that the most effective sounds and rhythms come from a body, in this case long dead but breathing through every period and comma. Listen to the l’s in “loath” and “close,” the m’s in “mystic” and “memory.” Hear the repetition of “We are not…we must not…,” just slightly different enough to catch your attention. Feel the literally “swelling” rhythm as the first short sentence lengthens, then lengthens again, becoming a broader and broader “chorus” and enacting that shift from “I” to “We” that Lincoln urges on us at that moment.
Yet the sentence that interests me most, and which sounds oddest, is the transitional one in the middle: “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” The syntax is forced: it seems to imply “it” as both object of “strained” and subject of “break” simultaneously. I can see a student today instead writing: “Though passion may have strained it, it must not break our bonds of affection.” But consider what you lose there: the sense that “it” is both strained and unbreakable.
Lepore points out in her article that Lincoln’s ending was drafted by his Secretary of State William Seward, but Lincoln revised it to good effect. Seward wrote
I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. 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 harmonize in their ancient music, when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.
One can easily see what Lincoln improved by cutting all those clauses and creating the lengthening rhythm, and by cutting redundancies like “fellow-countrymen” and “brethren.” He replaced the too-alliterative “heart,” “hearth” and “harmonize” with the less emphatic “heart,” “hearthstone,” and “chorus.” As Lepore concludes sardonically, “Revision usually helps.” But what about the change in the last line from “guardian angels of the nation” to “better angels of our nature”? Any ideas about what that change signifies?