Douglas L. Wilson: The Power of the NegativeRoundup: Talking About History
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....
comments powered by Disqus
- Trump wants a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on July 4th
- What Happens When an Entire Campus Is Rooted in the Confederacy?
- Short film reveals the terrible history of No Irish Need Apply
- California Assembly votes to support censure of Trump over comments on Charlottesville violence
- New evidence of Viking warrior women might not be what it seems
- Decline in History Majors Continues, Departments Respond
- He’s 75 now. When he started teaching at the University of New Orleans students walked out on his class.
- ‘Fake news’ from 1738 offers lessons for modern historians, says Missouri scholar
- Peter Dreier calls on Americans to build monuments to liberal heroes
- Economics historian Joel Mokyr says it was culture that made the West rich