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Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

Professor David Zarefsky, Ph.D.
Northwestern University

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Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

Course No. 877
Professor David Zarefsky, Ph.D.
Northwestern University
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4.8 out of 5
54 Reviews
75% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 877
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Course Overview

A century and a half after his death, the cadence, argument, and power of Abraham Lincoln's speeches still stir the heart of any American who encounters them.

The speeches of Abraham Lincoln are a precious inheritance for all Americans, and for all the world. As he led the nation through its gravest crisis, Lincoln emerged as a master of eloquence without equal.

The Art of Rhetoric, and Lincoln's Rise from Student to Master

This series of 24 lectures examines the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln—the public messages in which Lincoln evolved his views on slavery and the Union and by which he sought to persuade others. Rhetoric is the study of the available means of persuasion in a given case.

By tracing significant moments in Lincoln's career from the standpoint of public persuasion, you explore how Lincoln navigated the constraints posed by his audiences and situations and how he took advantage of creative opportunities.

You also see how heavily Lincoln's public career developed through public speeches and writings. And the course shows us the importance of thinking rhetorically, reasoning with specific audiences and situations in mind.

You witness American history in the making as you follow Lincoln's career as an orator from the Young Men's Lyceum Speech of 1838 to the majestic biblical cadences of the Second Inaugural. You'll even learn about the last speech Lincoln gave—a discussion on his plans for Reconstruction delivered at the White House three days before his death.

Rhetoric and Lincoln have been Professor David Zarefsky's scholarly passions for decades. He is the Owen L. Coon Professor of Argumentation and Debate, and Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, where he has taught for more than 30 years.

Northwestern University's Associated Student Government has voted Professor Zarefsky, a gifted speaker in his own right, to the Honor Roll for Teaching 12 times.

Lincoln's Rhetorical Greatness: A Fact and a Second Look

Lincoln's rhetorical greatness is well known, observes Professor Zarefsky, but, like everything else about our 16th president, we see it through a retrospective lens that is unavoidably distorted by our knowledge of his assassination. In other words, precisely because Abraham Lincoln is a national hero and martyr, we have lost sight of some of his depth and complexity. In a similar way, some of his greatest words—the Gettysburg Address especially—have become so familiar to us that we have almost lost the power truly to hear them.

Many people, for instance, labor under the false notion that Lincoln was always a skilled public communicator. Or that he and Stephen A. Douglas met in their famous debates while they were running against each other for the presidency. Or that Lincoln was predicting the Civil War when he famously said that "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

The Road to the Gettysburg Address

In fact, Lincoln had to learn the art of democratic persuasion amid the intense political and moral debates that gripped America during the middle third of the 19th century, especially the controversy over slavery and its expansion that culminated in the Civil War.

He did not start out at the level of the Gettysburg Address but walked a long road to reach that surpassing height. Thanks to Professor Zarefsky's profound learning and superb gifts as a lecturer, you can use these lectures to follow Lincoln step by step on that road.

You will see how Lincoln:

  • Reflected on the issues of his day and the nature of the American promise
  • Shaped and was shaped by public opinion
  • Responded to changing events and circumstances
  • Behaved in the cut and thrust of debate with formidable opponents such as Stephen A. Douglas: Four lectures are devoted to these debates.

In short, you will gain a comprehensive, inside view of Lincoln's statesmanship, leading you to an understanding of how he could call America to "a new birth of freedom" even while the nation was enduring the terrible ordeal of civil war.

A Compelling Human Story

Behind all the evidence and analysis that Professor Zarefsky so ably marshals, there stands a compelling human story. Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words shows you how a frontier lawyer who had less than a year of formal schooling and described his own origins as "the short and simple annals of the poor" could give us the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Lincoln and Rhetoric
    In this lecture, we will review Lincoln's basic biography and introduce a rhetorical perspective to the study of his career. A rhetorical perspective focuses especially on Lincoln's use of public persuasion to create a sense of community with his audience and to influence his listeners to achieve his goals. Lincoln's speaking career began as a young man in Springfield and continued until his death. We will review the major phases and highlights of that career. x
  • 2
    The Lyceum Speech, 1838
    Lincoln's first major public address was about the dangers of lawlessness to the survival of American political institutions. Although delivered in the aftermath of the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, the speech does not mention the attack but refers instead to other examples of lawless behavior. In this speech Lincoln previews much of his later political philosophy and raises questions about the relationship between the current generation and the Founding Fathers. x
  • 3
    The Temperance Speech, 1842
    Another early Lincoln speech was delivered to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield in 1842. Although praising the aims of the temperance movement, Lincoln promotes moderate rather than radical approaches to this important social reform. The speech can also be read as revealing Lincoln's theories of politics and of rhetoric, foreshadowing how he will oppose slavery without calling for its outright abolition. x
  • 4
    Lincoln as a Young Whig
    From an early age, Lincoln identified himself with the Whig Party. He served a single term in Congress from 1847 to 1849 and is known chiefly for his opposition to the Mexican War, then a popular cause. He claimed to be guided in all his actions by the example of Whig leader Henry Clay. In this lecture we will examine his speaking in opposition to the Mexican War and his eulogy of Henry Clay. x
  • 5
    Lincoln Returns to Politics
    After his one term in Congress, Lincoln retired from politics and returned to Springfield to practice law. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 brought him back into politics. This law, by repealing the Missouri Compromise (1820), opened territory that previously was free to the possible spread of slavery. This lecture will review the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act controversy, and why this issue rekindled Lincoln's interest in politics. x
  • 6
    The Peoria Speech, 1854
    During the fall of 1854, while the major political parties were in flux, Lincoln campaigned for candidates opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His major speech was delivered in substantially identical form in Springfield and Peoria. In this speech, Lincoln explained how he found the Kansas-Nebraska Act to be a historical aberration and a dangerous departure. We will examine the speech and the effects of the midterm elections of 1854. x
  • 7
    Lincoln's Rhetoric and Politics, 1854-1857
    In this lecture, we will examine the evolution of Lincoln's thought during the time between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision. We will find Lincoln building on the logic of the Peoria speech. The Dred Scott decision, however, seemed to threaten the political positions of both Lincoln and Douglas. x
  • 8
    The Springfield Speech, 1857
    By holding that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories, the Dred Scott decision undercut the Republican platform. But it also invalidated the Democratic Party's devotion to popular sovereignty, in which the people who populated a territory decided whether it would be slave or free. Both Douglas and Lincoln found it necessary to restate and defend their political principles in the wake of the Dred Scott decision. This lecture will explore the speeches in which they did so. x
  • 9
    The "House Divided" Speech, 1858
    In 1858, the Illinois State Republican Convention took the unusual step of nominating Lincoln to fill the senate seat then occupied by Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln accepted the nomination with a speech known by its key phrase, "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Although often understood today as a forecast of civil war, the speech was intended to convey a quite different message—that Republicans should not succumb to the temptation of supporting Douglas because he was encouraging a plan to make slavery legal nationally. x
  • 10
    The Chicago Speech, July 1858
    When Congress adjourned, Douglas returned to Illinois to begin his campaign. He delivered a blistering attack on the "house divided" doctrine. Lincoln answered Douglas the next night. He claimed his speech had been misconstrued, but he delivered a ringing statement in support of racial equality. This statement would create problems for Lincoln among more moderate voters, and he would retreat from it later in the campaign. x
  • 11
    The Springfield Speech, July 1858
    From Chicago, Lincoln and Douglas both traveled to Springfield. Lincoln was in the audience while Douglas spoke, then rose and offered to speak later to explain his views. Again Lincoln denied the radical nature of the "house divided" position, and he pointed out that Douglas had not answered his allegation that the incumbent was part of a plot to spread slavery all over the nation. x
  • 12
    The Debate about the Debates
    Having trouble attracting his own crowds, Lincoln followed Douglas as a kind of "truth squad." When the partisan press began to ridicule him for doing so, Lincoln used a different strategy. After Douglas's schedule of campaign appearances had been published, Lincoln challenged him to a series of about 50 debates. Intense negotiations between the principals on the details of the debates followed. This lecture will review the "debate about the debates" and suggest that it has a contemporary character. x
  • 13
    The Lincoln-Douglas Debates I
    Douglas opened the first debate on a strong note, charging that Lincoln's "house divided" doctrine would mandate national uniformity and alleging that he was part of a plot to abolitionize both major parties. He posed several questions to try to tie Lincoln to a radical Republican platform. Lincoln answered defensively and had difficulty establishing his own position.This lecture will review the course of the argument in the first two debates. x
  • 14
    The Lincoln-Douglas Debates II
    Douglas had expected to do well in the third debate, held in heavily Democratic southern Illinois. But Lincoln arrested his momentum and posed a fifth question that forced Douglas to state whether he would support territorial legislation to protect slavery. The fourth (Charleston) debate is unlike any of the others; it is devoted to an argument that Douglas plotted to deny Kansas the chance to vote on slavery while claiming to champion popular sovereignty. This lecture will analyze arguments in the third and fourth debates. x
  • 15
    The Lincoln-Douglas Debates III
    Lincoln found his stride in the last three debates. He derived the nationalization of slavery from a formal logical structure rather than from an alleged conspiracy, and he finally introduced the basic moral argument that slavery was wrong. Lincoln's positions advanced from the beginning of the debates to the end, while Douglas repeated arguments he had put forward in earlier debates. This lecture will examine the fifth and sixth debates between Lincoln and Douglas. x
  • 16
    The Aftermath of the Debates
    The final debate was anticlimactic for Douglas, but it enabled Lincoln to sharpen his moral argument. Following the debates, the last few weeks of the campaign were marked by a key last-minute endorsement for Douglas and by charges of vote fraud. Douglas was re-elected to the Senate, although it is likely that candidates pledged to Lincoln had the larger popular vote. Certainly Lincoln was not harmed by the results of the election. x
  • 17
    Lincoln's 1859 Speeches
    After his defeat in 1858, Lincoln returned to his law practice but remained active on the speaking circuit. He developed a lecture on discoveries and inventions. Both Lincoln and Douglas also campaigned for candidates in the Ohio elections of 1859. Lincoln's Ohio speeches can be seen as extensions of the Lincoln-Douglas debates: the same arguments appear in a more fully developed form. This lecture will examine both "Discoveries and Inventions" and Lincoln's Columbus speech. x
  • 18
    The Cooper Union Speech, 1860
    At the close of a New England tour, Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union in New York City—in effect meeting presidential frontrunner William H. Seward on Seward's home ground. He offered evidence that a majority of the Founders believed that Congress had the power to outlaw slavery in the territories and concluded that Congress should exercise that power. A portion of the speech ostensibly is directed to the South although it is likely that the true audience is the North. This lecture will analyze the Cooper Union speech. x
  • 19
    The Campaign of 1860
    Lincoln gave no speeches during the presidential campaign, believing that his views were on the record and that his opponents would distort his positions. This lecture will explore the nature and consequences of Lincoln's "eloquent silence." It also will examine his brief farewell speech to his Springfield neighbors and speeches he made en route to Washington for the presidential inauguration. x
  • 20
    The First Inaugural Address
    Lincoln's First Inaugural is one of his most famous speeches. The new President suggests the impossibility of dividing the Union and appeals to the loyalty and good will of the South. He defines his policy as purely defensive and suggests that, if war breaks out, the South will be the aggressor. Although the speech seeks reconciliation, southerners regarded it as a siren song. This lecture will explore Lincoln's rhetorical moves in the First Inaugural Address. x
  • 21
    Justifying the War
    The Civil War broke out while Congress was not in session, so Lincoln could make decisions unimpeded by legislation—but he needed congressional approval of funds to support the war. He called Congress into special session on July 4, 1861. His message to Congress makes clear his war aims, which are much more limited and defensive than they soon will become. This lecture is devoted to Lincoln's rhetorical choices in his special message to Congress. x
  • 22
    Moving Toward Emancipation
    Having rejected emancipation as a goal of the war, Lincoln now moved toward defending it as a military necessity. In a meeting with a delegation of African Americans, Lincoln urged them to support his policy of colonization—returning free blacks to Africa. In his 1862 Annual Message, Lincoln again indicated his support for colonization. Meanwhile, the President was preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This lecture will examine these documents of 1862. x
  • 23
    Lincoln at Gettysburg
    The Gettysburg Address is justifiably regarded as masterful and eloquent. Departing from tradition, it did not depict the battle itself, as had the major address of the day by Edward Everett, but abstracted from the particulars to the larger meaning of the war. By removing the war from its immediate context, Lincoln could articulate principles that would endure long after the guns were stilled, thereby denying his own claim that the world would "little note nor long remember" what he said. This lecture will examine Lincoln's most well-known speech. x
  • 24
    Lincoln's Last Speeches
    As he had done at Gettysburg, Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address focuses on the larger meaning of the war. Lincoln here interprets the carnage and destruction by reference to Biblical precept and divine purpose. This is a speech of reconciliation, but it does not assign responsibility. This final lecture will examine Lincoln's Second Inaugural as his most mature assessment of the war. It also will comment on his final public address, a response to a serenade two days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. x

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Your professor

David Zarefsky

About Your Professor

David Zarefsky, Ph.D.
Northwestern University
Dr. David Zarefsky is the Owen L. Coon Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, where he has taught for over 30 years. He earned his B.S., master's degree, and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. From 1988 through 2000, he served as the Dean of the School of Speech. A nationally recognized authority on rhetoric and forensics, he is a past president of the National Communication Association (NCA) and...
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Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 54.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Deep and informative look into Lincoln's thoughts I enjoyed this and hope that Prof. Zarefsky does more for the TC. I found it very interesting to get into this level of detail in the evolution of Abraham Lincoln and a thinker, politician, and communicator by the deep dive into numerous speeches. The course goes well beyond the speeches that most people have heard of, and starts early in Lincoln's career (the contrast in verbiage is fascinating -- Lincoln clearly grew with practice, as people can do). The course includes helpful review of the key topics of the day that drove Lincoln's thinking, including the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Mexican - American War, the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas - Nebraska Act, and the run-up to the Civil War. Zarefsky is a good lecturer with real command of the material and clear affection for his subject.
Date published: 2016-12-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Yes and No This is a great topic for a course organized by a knowledgeable teacher whose oral recitation of the speeches was moving because of his enthusiastic delivery. Without retracting the above praise, I do have one criticism. Although the teacher rightly begins with Aristotle definition of rhetoric (the faculty of finding the available means of persuasion in the given circumstances), several times he pays insufficient heed to Lincoln” s “given circumstances.” For instance, the teacher objects to a passage from the September 18, 1858 Charleston speech, where Lincoln denies favoring “the social and political equality of the white and black races.” In fact, that passage needs very careful parsing, for Lincoln qualifies his remarks even in the given circumstances. The passage does not bear the racist criticisms the teacher makes. Harry Jaffa great book should be consulted on this matter. But more important than the opinions Jaffa and I offer is that of Frederick Douglass 1867 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” This runaway slave who educated himself to become a civil rights leader took what he called “a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln” which led him to “make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position.” Douglass’ speech should be read as carefully as those of Lincoln. But enough of criticism. I found this a refreshing course in the present moment of “political correctness” and terrible Presidential debates. May I suggest for a future Great Course that you commission someone to analyze Winston Churchill’s speeches, especially those of the 1930s and 40s? You have one course on his life, but I am particularly interested in rhetorical analysis of Churchill’s speeches.
Date published: 2016-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lincoln Excellent course lot of detail and background would recommend.
Date published: 2016-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words I purchased this for myself a while back and truly enjoyed it.....the presentatiion was very good, contents were excellent.......I discovered many things about Lincoln and the way he addressed many topics of the day, which definitely appled to the problems either he or someone else would face if elected president at that time......this 2nd purchase was a gift for a family member who belongs to a Civil War Group in Pa.,===== I know he will throughly enjoy listening and pass along to his son who is part of the Civil War Group.......
Date published: 2016-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from President Lincoln on Leadership Professor Zarefsky provides the perspective to many of the memorable speeches of President Lincoln. As my favorite U.S. President, the course provided me the background, interpretive meaning and latitudes of speeches utilized to address and lead the American people through challenging times. Particularly, the speeches of the Douglas debates were eye-opening in that Professor Zarefsky peeled back the mere written words and delicately painted the constitutional understanding of Lincoln during the formative years of our young republic. Excellent course! I highly recommend this course for anyone desiring an in-depth study on the purposes, thoughts and actions of President Lincoln.
Date published: 2015-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I bought 5 copies 2 copies sent to UK, 2 to US. An excellent approach to Lincoln, a serious but not boring presentation.
Date published: 2015-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insight into Lincoln Listening to this course provided me with a host of new insights into Lincoln. As other reviewers have mentioned, this isn't a biography of Lincoln. Nor is it a rhetoric course. This course simply takes a number of Lincoln's works and explains their contexts, what they say about what Lincoln was thinking or doing at the time, and what affect they had on Lincoln and the country. My father had a very extensive library the majority of which I now possess. Amongst the books is a 9-volume set of the collected works of Abraham Lincoln. I was therefore able to read, in full, the various works addressed in this series. I highly recommend getting your hands on these works - I'm sure most are online or in libraries - as it was illuminating to read the entire pieces rather than just hearing the excerpts read by Zarefsky. Another reviewer notes that this series demythologizes Lincoln. I agree. But, I also feel it provides new insights which show what a truly great man he was. For a good biography of Lincoln, see the Guelzo course via the link below. I took a star away from the presentation because Zarefsky's isn't the best speaker. However, what he says makes listening more than worthwhile.
Date published: 2015-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Truly World Class Lecture Series Abraham Lincoln In His Own Words" is an extraordinary lecture series. I have been attending college level classes, lecture series, and academic rhetorical events for the better part of half a century. I have attended close to 400 college level courses. Professor Zarefsky's "Lincoln in His Own Words" is in the top five, maybe the top three of the 400. His command of U.S. history during the Lincoln years is comprehensive and encyclopedic. He registers the political years of Lincoln in fine detail and with a ring of solid historical truth. The presentation is pure history, unencumbered by any hint of professorial hidden agenda or academic affectation that sometimes detracts from otherwise good courses. However, it is the professor's rare world class rhetorical talent that places this course in class by itself. If you who enjoy American history and appreciate rhetorical mastery, this is one of the Great Courses you will not want to miss.
Date published: 2015-01-09
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