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What you won't learn from Speilberg's "Lincoln"

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"There is in this something so repugnant to humanity, so uncharitable, so cold-blooded and feelingless, that it never did, nor never can enlist the enthusiasm of a popular cause…"

Speechwriter, admit it—you immediately took note of the November release date of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and made plans to see it. (I certainly did.) I saw the movie a few days ago and enjoyed it immensely.

You cannot watch the film as a speechwriter without of course noting and delighting in how it deftly integrated Lincoln’s gift for speeches into several key moments—especially the moving very final moments of the movie, incorporating key lines from Lincoln’s second inaugural.

One Lincoln speech that did not make it into the movie, but which has great instructional value to the VSOTD community, is his February 1842 speech before an Illinois temperance group.

This address contrasts the success of the-then new generation of temperance activists with their more old-school predecessors. Lincoln notes that where the activists of yesteryear had condemned those who drank (or sold drink) as “the authors of all the vice and misery and crime in the land [and] the manufacturers and material of all the thieves and robbers and murderers that infest the earth,” their successors stuck to a softer approach in their public statements.

Lincoln observes of the new activists that “[b]enevolence and charity possess their hearts entirely; and out of the abundance of their hearts their tongues give utterance, ‘Love through all their actions run, and all their words are mild:’ in this spirit they speak and act, and in the same they are heard and regarded. And when such is the temper of the advocate, and such of the audience, no good cause can be unsuccessful.”

The part of the speech that bests distills Lincoln’s rhetorical advice goes as follows:

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim,‘that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart; which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if, indeed, that cause really be a just one.

On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart, and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than herculean force and precision, you shall be no more able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye-straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interests.

Seek the “high road” to the audience’s reason for a good cause, and its judgment will follow. Try to batter your listeners’ reason into submission, and your cause will fail to attract their support.

Good advice in 1842. Still good advice in 2012.