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Abraham Lincoln and Making a Case. The Story of a Master by Joseph F. Roda Book Cover

Abraham Lincoln and
Making a Case

The Story of a Master

by Joseph F. Roda

About The Book


We remember Abraham Lincoln for many things, but without his ability at persuasion, we would remember him for nothing. It was that ability that brought him first to national prominence and the White House, and then through the most difficult four years that any president has ever faced.

This book focuses exclusively on that ability, looking first at Lincoln’s history of persuasive efforts, from the poverty-stricken boy who stood on tree stumps to repeat sermons, through the young state legislator and congressman, courtroom lawyer, rising national politician, and ultimately president, and then at what made him so effective: his personality and intellect, his credibility and clarity, and his masterful use of fact, logic, and emotion. It is a remarkable story.

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Abraham Lincoln and Making a Case

The Story of a Master

by Joseph F. Roda

Chapter 1: Born to Speak

ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS drawn to public speaking from his earliest days. His stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, said that, even as a boy, Lincoln “would hear sermons preached – come home – take the children out – get on a stump or log and almost repeat it word for word.”1 His older cousin Dennis Hanks likewise said that the young Lincoln, even at work, “sometimes would mount a stump-chair or box and make speeches – Speech with stories – anecdotes & such like thing[s].”2

Thus would begin one of the great legacies of public persuasion, through both speech and pen.

Perhaps his first “debate” for which there is a “record” came in 1830, when the twenty-one-year-old Lincoln, while ” driving a team of oxen, breaking prairie,” encountered Peter Cartwright, a well-known “circuit­riding preacher and politician.”3 William Butler witnessed the encounter and later recalled it:

Cartwright laid down his doctrines in a way which undoubtedly seemed to Lincoln a little too dogmatical. A discussion soon arose between him [Lincoln] and Cartwright, and my first special attention was attracted to Lincoln by the way in which he met the great preacher in his arguments, and the extensive acquaintance he showed with the politics of the State – in fact he quite beat him in the argument.4

In the summer of the same year, the young Lincoln similarly impressed observers with a speech at a political gathering, which another of Lincoln’s older cousins, John Hanks, later recalled:

A man by the name Posey Came into our neighborhood and made a Speech: it was a bad one and I Said Abe could beat it… Abe made his Speech [and]… beat him to death – his subject being the navigation of the Sangamon River. The man after the Speech was through took Abe aside and asked him where he had learned So much and what he did so well. Abe Explained, Stating his manner & method of reading and what he had read: the man Encouraged Lincoln to persevere.5

Not long after this, the twenty-two year old Lincoln struck out on his own, leaving home and moving to New Salem, Illinois, where he soon began attending meetings of the town’s Literary and Debating Society. He stood to speak for the first time after just a few months,6 and impressed the group’s leader, James Rutledge, who reportedly told his wife that Lincoln “was already a fine speaker; that all he lacked was culture to enable him to reach the high destiny which he Knew was in store for him.”7 Rutledge’s son, who was also present when Lincoln first spoke, echoed that sentiment, saying that Lincoln “pursued the question [to which he spoke] with reason and argument so pithy and forcible that all were amazed.”8

The next year (1832), at the age of just twenty-three, Lincoln made his first try at elective office, running as a Whig against twelve other candidates for four available seats in the Illinois House. He finished eighth,9 but even in losing “acquired a reputation for… speech-making,” according to John Todd Stuart, a prominent Springfield politician and lawyer who would later become Lincoln’s first law partner.10

Lincoln then made a second run for the Illinois House two years later, in 1834, and this time was successful. He was quiet as a freshman legislator, making “no formal speeches and only two brief sets of remarks,”11 but then “emerged as a prominent and effective Whig spokesman” when he ran for re-election in 1836.12 He campaigned not only in rural areas, as he had in his first two runs, but also in towns and villages,13 and according to a Whig colleague, Robert L. Wilson, took “a leading part” in presenting “the Whig side” of questions, showing “skill and tact” in debates, and presenting his arguments “with great force and ability.”14 According to Wilson, the young Lincoln, at just twenty-seven and off the farm only five years, “was by common consent looked up to and relied on as the leading Whig exponent… the best versed and most captivating and trenchant speaker on their side.”15

On one occasion in that 1836 campaign, Lincoln’s skill at making a case reportedly stopped a Whig and a Democrat from trying to kill each other, when a confrontation between them became so heated that a duel looked imminent. Lincoln saved the day with what an observer called “one of the most eloquent and convincing speeches he ever made, carrying the crowd with him almost to a man.”16

On another occasion in the same campaign, Lincoln further enhanced his reputation by “skinning” a leading Democrat – a Methodist minister and physician known as “The Fighting Parson” – with a rebuttal that “became a legend” in Lincoln’s county.17 The parson had disparaged a leading Whig, and Lincoln rose to the Whig’s defense, with a response so good that by the time he was finished, “his reputation was made… [and] he had placed himself, by a single effort, in the very front rank of able and eloquent debaters.”18

Lincoln showed the same skill, again in that campaign, in defending himself from an attack by one of the most experienced and highly regarded political speakers of the time, George Forquer. As Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed recalled the event, Lincoln spoke first, with a “very able” speech that used Whig principles “with great power and originality,” and “produced a profound impression – The Crowd was with him.”19

Forquer then arose, condescendingly announced “that this young man [Lincoln] would have to be taken down,”20 and delivered a speech against Lincoln in that same, arrogant tone. But when Forquer finished, Lincoln rose again, and “with great dignity and force”21 hoisted Forquer on his own petard. In a series of ” fortunate” events, Forquer had recently switched from Whig to Democrat, been appointed Register of the land office, and built the best home in town, complete with a lightning rod-a novelty of that time.22 In his rebuttal, Lincoln cleverly used the latter to hit advantage, saying that while he, Lincoln, desired “place and distinction as a politician… I would rather die now than like the gentleman live to see the day that I would have to erect a lightning rod to protect a guilty Conscience from an offended God.”23

Book Reviews & Press


By Kirkus Reviews

A debut scholarly work explores Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable talent for rhetorical persuasion.

Lincoln’s meteoric rise to political prominence was an unlikely one—he was born to uneducated farmers; his political accomplishments prior to the presidency were modest; and he was an uncommonly awkward, even unattractive man. But Roda argues he was also a brilliant wordsmith, preternaturally capable of changing the opinions of others through the eloquence of his speeches and writings.

Despite the brevity of the book, Roda provides an impressively synoptic account of Lincoln’s rhetorical career, spanning his courtroom experiences, chief speeches including his inaugural addresses, and his famous debates with Stephen Douglas.

Read The Full Review

Book Review by Kirkus Reviews

A debut scholarly work explores Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable talent for rhetorical persuasion.

Lincoln’s meteoric rise to political prominence was an unlikely one—he was born to uneducated farmers; his political accomplishments prior to the presidency were modest; and he was an uncommonly awkward, even unattractive man. But Roda argues he was also a brilliant wordsmith, preternaturally capable of changing the opinions of others through the eloquence of his speeches and writings. The author diligently tracks Lincoln’s evolution as a public speaker, beginning with an impromptu debate he had at age 21 with an itinerant preacher in 1830. A year later, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, and joined a debating society. He honed his skills not only as a politician, but also as a lawyer—over the course of his legal career, he was involved in more than 5,000 extraordinarily diverse cases.

Despite the brevity of the book, Roda provides an impressively synoptic account of Lincoln’s rhetorical career, spanning his courtroom experiences, chief speeches including his inaugural addresses, and his famous debates with Stephen Douglas. In addition, the author charts the transformation of Lincoln’s style from flowery flourishes to one more restrained and elegant. Roda ably makes the case that Lincoln’s achievement as a persuader of others is historically unmatched: “Abraham Lincoln may be the most accomplished advocate the country has ever produced. There have been many Americans adept at making a case, to be sure, but who has accomplished more at this than Abraham Lincoln?” The author’s research is painstakingly meticulous and the conclusions he draws are cautiously judicious. And while he concedes that the work’s “facts are not new” and “can be found in any number of books and articles about Lincoln,” he supplies an analysis of the president’s oratorical prowess as astute as any other single-volume treatment. Moreover, Roda also helpfully anatomizes Lincoln’s rhetorical success into five distinct virtues: “credibility, clarity, fact, logic, and emotion.” The author’s study is a valuable resource for historians and rhetoric scholars alike.

An incisive Lincoln survey accessible to amateur historians.

Kirkus Indie, Kirkus Media LLC, 2600 Via Fortuna Suite 130 Austin, TX 78746
indie@kirkusreviews.com

About The Author


Mr. Roda graduated from Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and was then a trial and appellate lawyer for 42 years, now retired.

He is a member of The International Academy of Trial Lawyers, which limits its United States membership to 500 attorneys, and the American College of Trial Lawyers, which limits its membership to one percent of practicing attorneys in each state. He has given presentations on Abraham Lincoln’s ability at persuasion for the past nine years, to other attorneys and laypersons, and builds in this book on those presentations. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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please contact Joseph F. Roda by filling out the form below.