How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, Part 3
Metaphors are the Rolls Royce of figures. Or, to put it more aptly, metaphors are the Toyota Prius of figures because a metaphor is a hybrid, connecting two dissimilar things to achieve a unique turn of phrase.
Metaphor, like verbal irony discussed in the previous post, is a trope, because it alters or enhances a word’s literal meaning. The headline quote is from Aristotle, who writes in Poetics, “To be a master of metaphor is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”
A 2005 study on “Presidential Leadership and Charisma: The Effects of Metaphor” examined the use of metaphors in the first-term inaugural addresses of three dozen presidents who had been independently rated for charisma. The remarkable conclusion:
Charismatic presidents used nearly twice as many metaphors (adjusted for speech length) than non-charismatic presidents.
Additionally, when students were asked to read a random group of inaugural addresses and highlight the passages they viewed as most inspiring, “even those presidents who did not appear to be charismatic were still perceived to be more inspiring when they used metaphors.”
Given their power, metaphors have naturally become a weapon wielded by all great political speechmakers. Lincoln, a devout student of the two great rhetoric texts, the Bible and Shakespeare, understood that power more than any other president.
In 1848, when he was a Whig in Congress, he responded to the claim that his party had “taken shelter under General Taylor’s military coat-tail,” referring to Zachary Taylor, the Whig Party Presidential nominee. He turned the metaphor against his opponents, saying they themselves had run under the coat-tail of General Jackson for five elections. Then, instructing them in rhetoric, Lincoln added “military coat-tails, or tails of any sort, are not figures of speech such as I would be the first to introduce into discussions here.”
Lincoln launched a metaphor of his own, wishing the “gentlemen on the other side to understand that the use of degrading figures is a game at which they may not find themselves able to take all the winnings.” At this point, some in the opposition cried, “We give it up!” But Lincoln was just warming up. His reply was a rhetorical cruise missile:
Aye, you give it up, and well you may; but for a very different reason from that which you would have us understand. The point–the power to hurt–of all figures consists in the truthfulness of their application; and, understanding this, you may well give it up. They are weapons which hit you, but miss us.
The opposition was hoist with their own metaphorical petard.
Lincoln offered his most poignant metaphor in a June 1858 speech to the Illinois Republican state convention after they had chosen him as their candidate to run against Democrat Stephen Douglas in the U.S. senate race: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He then amplified the metaphor by listing divisions, one after the another:
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
We learn from Lincoln’s partner in law, William Herndon, that Lincoln wanted to use “some universally known figure [of speech] expressed in simple language … that may strike home to the minds of men in order to raise them up to the peril of the times.”
The power of the metaphor of the Union as a house is not merely its visual simplicity, but in the link to the gospels. Lincoln is quoting Jesus, implying that God is on the side of those who think like he does, that slavery must die and soon. Lincoln lost the Senate race, and some thought that he had lost because of this speech, because his message was too strong. But if the metaphor cost him the Senate, Lincoln’s brilliant extension of the metaphor in the speech would cost Douglas the presidency, as we will see in the final part:
Part 4 — Extended metaphor: How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address
Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches and Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Persistent metaphors pump life blood into the Bible, into Jesus’ parables and Psalms, such as the Twenty-third, with its famous extended shepherd metaphor:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Politicians who understand extended metaphors have a long political life; those who do not, don’t have much of a pulse.
The Elizabethan era book The Garden of Eloquence by Henry Peacham explains the potency of this figure: It “serves most aptly to ingrain the lively images of things, and to present them under deep shadows to the contemplation of the mind, wherein wit and judgement take pleasure, and the remembrance receives a longer lasting impression.”
Using an extended metaphor himself, Peacham explains that while a simple metaphor “may be compared to a star in respect of beauty, brightness and direction,” an extended metaphor may be “fully likened to a figure compounded of many stars … which we may call a constellation.” No wonder this figure is so widely used. Who wouldn’t want to have their words achieve the impact and longevity of heavenly images like the Big Dipper or Orion?
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln gives us a subtle but powerful example. The speech is only 270 words long–almost precisely the same length as the “To be or not to be speech.” Lincoln makes it unforgettable using an extended metaphor of birth, death, and resurrection to increase the coherence and impact of his brief remarks.
Lincoln delivers a variety of references to birth from the very beginning, “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He says the civil war is testing whether “any nation so conceived … can long endure.” Lincoln then moves on to images and words of death, as befits the horrific battlefield in front of him, with phrases such as “a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives” and “the brave men, living and dead” and “these honored dead” and “these dead.” He finally returns to the original metaphor of birth, but with a t
wist: We must resolve that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Birth, death, rebirth and immortality (”shall not perish”)–in a place that we will make sacred (”hallow” and “consecrate” and the key repeated word, “dedicate”)–is a stunning extended metaphor that turns into an biblical allusion of hope for transcendence even during the worst suffering, with the Battle of Gettysburg becoming a symbolic national crucifixion. No wonder Winston Churchill termed Lincoln’s speech, “the ultimate expression of the majesty of Shakespeare’s language.”
Extended metaphors are often far more overt, as in Lincoln’s “house divided” speech at the start of his Illinois Senate race against Stephen Douglas. Lincoln describes how the combined effect of Supreme Court decisions and policies by Douglas and others was to extend slavery into new territories in spite of local opposition. Lincoln said “we can not absolutely know” that Douglas and the others were working together to achieve this effect, “But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places, and by different workmen … and when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly matte the frame of a house” then it is “impossible not to believe” that everyone “worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck.”
Stephen Douglas resented Lincoln’s implication in the “House Divided” speech that he was part of a conspiracy to extend slavery, a charge and a metaphor Lincoln never tired of repeating everywhere. In his famous debates with Lincoln, Douglas responded with a harsh figure of his own–sarcasm:
He [Lincoln] studied that out-prepared that one sentence with the greatest care, committed it to memory, and put it in his first Springfield speech, and now he carries that speech around and reads that sentence to show how pretty it is. His vanity is wounded because I will not go into that beautiful figure of his about the building of a house. All I have to say is, that I am not green enough to let him make a charge which he acknowledges he does not know to be true, and then take up my time in answering it, when I know it to be false and nobody else knows it to be true.
But Lincoln had thought through the implications of his figure of speech. He would not give it up, as Lincoln scholar Roy Basler has explained: “Under the implications of Lincoln’s figure, constantly pressed, Douglas was constrained to make a statement of opinion that, although it immediately clear his way in the senatorial contest, eventually cost him the presidency.”
Why was Lincoln so fond of extended metaphors? They are certainly common figures in the Bible and Shakespeare, which he studied closely. We know Lincoln knew of the figure, since “allegory,” which “may be regarded as a metaphor continued,” is one of the fourteen figures of speech discussed in Kirkham’s English Grammar, the book Lincoln studied from age twenty-three.
I suspect that the reason he liked the figure is the same reason that modern candidates do: It is a masterful means of framing a political debate, exactly as he crafted the framed-timbers-of-the-house extended metaphor to frame Douglas for the crime of extending slavery. Politicians with language intelligence, like Lincoln, repeat and extend their metaphors.