Douglas L. Wilson: The Power of the Negative

tags: language, WSJ, Abraham Lincoln, Douglas L. Wilson, diction



Mr. Wilson is co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College and author of "Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words." This essay is adapted from an article scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

Now that Steven Spielberg's new film, "Lincoln," has sparked extraordinary interest in Abraham Lincoln as a behind-the-scenes persuader, it may be a good time to take a look at an aspect of his most persuasive writing. In virtually all the most memorable passages of Lincoln's writings, there is a feature that plays a critical role—namely, the rhetorical use of the negative. This is not to say that Lincoln was a naysayer or negative thinker, but rather that he demonstrated an acute understanding of the power of negation in language and was unusually adept at putting that force to use.

Philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke argues that the negative is intimately connected to our sense of morality, if not actually responsible for it. Law, ethics and religion, he contends, are all built around the "thou-shalt-nots." This is one way of accounting for the power that the negative has in language and human affairs.

It is this power that Lincoln tapped into. As with Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, both of whom had a comparable gift, this may be an aspect of Lincoln's literary genius, but it may also owe something to the fact that dogged opposition was his lot in the major political struggles of his life: Jacksonian political rule, the hegemony of the Democratic Party, the Mexican War, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Decision, the expansion of slavery, and the dissolution of the Union....




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