Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

Course No. 877
Professor David Zarefsky, Ph.D.
Northwestern University
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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
 |  Average 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 68.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great deep dive into Lincoln's speeches and in part into his mind.
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Great detail and perspective I was expecting more of an autobiography in Lincoln's words. Instead there was an extremely detailed examination of his speeches which evolved up to his election and through his presidency. It was not what I expected, though I did learn several interesting perspectives I was not aware of before.
Date published: 2019-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lecture series. I learned a great deal about Lincoln that I did not know and also about the political and social environment of that time that has relevance even today. Thank you for making this lecture series.
Date published: 2019-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have at least 50 courses from GC and this is possibly the very best. I have gifted or recommended it to many friends. I have been thanked many times.
Date published: 2018-12-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words Was looking for a course that informative, keep my attention and highly accurace. This course met exactly what I was looking for.
Date published: 2018-04-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good on history, good on rhetoric Prof. Zarefsky is a professor of rhetoric, and this course does two things well: it tells the history of the causes of the American Civil War, and it explores Lincoln's rhetoric and methods of persuasion. The history is necessary to understand the rhetoric, because we won't understand a speaker's approach unless we know the concerns and hot buttons of his audience. I'm Canadian; I had heard of Dred Scott, the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act before, but Zarefsky provided new depth and clarity. Zarefsky often makes brief quotes from Lincoln's speeches, but the main emphasis is not on the use of plain or flowery language. It's on how, like the lawyer he was, Lincoln constructed persuasive arguments. Why 4 stars not 5 for this impressive course? It's because Prof. Zarefsky is always very clear, and sometimes too clear. I have the impression that in the classroom, he would work hard to ensure that even the worst student got a C. He often says, "Here Lincoln is saying..." and sometimes I think: "Yes, you quoted him, and I heard it." He also reminds us of what Lincoln said previously, and of what Prof. Zarefsky said about that the last time Lincoln said it. This is not always bad. I listen to these courses as I'm hiking or walking out for shopping, and if I'm distracted by scenery or random thoughts, I don't lose the thread. But this won't be one of the courses I listen to twice.
Date published: 2018-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Digs deeply Abraham Lincoln has been my hero since I did an oral report on him in 8th grade so I snapped up the lecture series on the subject of his speeches. Listening required me to settle down and focus, a skill losing prominence in our wired world. Starting very early in Lincoln’s career the lecturer sets the scene for each speech in the tenor of the times. Thus we come to understand Lincoln’s speeches as an evolution of his thought as a process of the human being and the politician. Excellent series. Money well spent.
Date published: 2017-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant! I wasn't sure if I was going to like it but it is beautifully presented.
Date published: 2017-09-24
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