CIVIC RHETORIC AND LINCOLN'S BIRTHDAY

"February 12--Lincoln's Birthday," by Thomas Fogarty, Collier's 26:21 (9 February 1901), DLC/PP-1939:0060, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

Project

The purpose of this project is to provide information about the nature and civic function of discourse rituals surrounding Abraham Lincoln's birthday in American political culture. Since 1866 many types of discourse that have been used to celebrate Lincoln's birthday, including speeches, essays, anecdotes, poems, short stories, songs, plays, pageants, special school day activities, scripted programs, graphical images, sculpted objects, and memorials (see representative examples).

Political and Social Functions

Generally Lincoln’s birthday discourses are designed to conserve, constitute, or critique American values or otherwise to contribute to dialog on matters of political or social significance. Discourses most typically conserve American values by appealing to or depicting those values as objects of agreement in American political culture. For example, Hawn’s formulary speech, "Lincoln’s Birthday" (1921), depicts Lincoln as virtuous because of his drive toward self-improvement, his alertness, his patience, and his steadfastness. He does so with confidence that his audience will agree that such qualities make Lincoln venerable. Discourses that constitute American values either attempt to realize tacit (or unrecognized) agreements about values or they declare the existence of such values based on their coherence with values regarding which there is recognized agreement. For example, Howliston’s short story, "February Twelfth" (1899), insists upon the equality of Americans despite their class, race, and ethnicity in an allegory that shows such equality is coherent with patriotism. Discourses that critique American values either decry or depict commonly held values, often using an illustration or inference that the values criticized are incoherent with more strongly held American values. For example, R. R. Wright’s essay, "Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday" (1895) uses a tribute to Lincoln as an opportunity to repudiate racism and oppose it to freedom. Discourses that contribute to civic dialog link Lincoln or celebration of his birthday to matters of public concern in a way that permits their consideration by the civic community. For example, Chauncey Depew's "In Celebration of Lincoln's Birthday" (1901) exploits the Lincoln's birthday as an opportunity to support U.S. federalism and U.S. expansionism, two matters of significant controversy in the American political community at the turn of the twentieth century.

Values and Issues

Lincoln’s birthday discourses of various types address a wide range of values and issues, using diverse discursive strategies, in adaptation to evolving historical circumstances and before disparate sorts of audiences. Values addressed in Lincoln’s birthday discourses typically arise from his personal characteristics--for example, self-improvement ([Baldwin] 1906) and compassion (Thompson 1894)--or general principles to which he devoted himself--for example, freedom (F. F. 1874) and national unity (Bancroft 1866). Issues discussed in Lincoln’s birthday discourses most often relate to matters of social or political concern in the immediate context, for instance national expansion and domestic reform in the early twentieth century (e.g., Depew 1901 and Roosevelt 1909) or the perils of global communism in the 1950s (e.g., McCarthy 1950).

Strategies

The strategies involved in a Lincoln's discourse have to do with the many ways that discourse producers try to achieve their objectives in the discourse. For example, Hawn (1910) conserves American values by attributing them to Lincoln in the form of praise. Howliston (1899) promotes equality (and diversity) as American values in an allegory that connects them with patriotism. Wright (1895) uses quotation and irony to critique continuing racism in the United States. Smith (1920) uses argument from Lincoln's example that anyone can do something for the country; he says, "An active interest in our country is what we all need."

Historical Exigencies

The historical circumstances that surround Lincoln’s birthday discourses often serve as exigencies that drive the subject matter and its treatment in the composition (or a deliberate revision of a composition). The significance of historical circumstances may perhaps be illustrated by two Lincoln’s birthday discourses that address the same value, perseverance, but for different reasons at different times. In 1909 when Theodore Roosevelt was pushing for radical reform in the American economy, his "Lincoln Centennial Address" praised Lincoln for "indomitable resolution," something that he said was needed to solve contemporary social and industrial problems. However, in 1921, when the American people were concerned about increasing immigration to the United States, Hawn's formulary speech "Lincoln's Birthday" praises Lincoln for steadfastness because Hawn believes that this value will be useful to the Americanization of "aliens" (see textual notes for this speech under View/Page Source).

Audiences

The audiences of Lincoln’s birthday discourse are often designed for collections of adults both elite (e.g., Bancroft 1866) and popular (e.g., Roosevelt 1909). But they are about as about as frequently designed for children within the school setting (e.g., Sutherland 1899) and outside of it (e.g., Hanifan 1920). Particularly in the case of children, Lincoln’s birthday discourses performed functions of moral instruction (e.g., Thompson 1894) and initiation into American political culture (e.g., Schell 1910). Arguably, aiming political discourse at children is an effective way to create a national population that is civically engaged, and the ethical and political agreements engendered by Lincoln’s birthday discourse in America’s citizens may perhaps be counted as its most significant outcome over time.

Scholarly Resources

To aid further investigation of Lincoln’s birthday discourse, a select list of relevant bibliographical sources has been constructed as part of this project. The list contains two sorts of materials. Some of these materials are designed to stimulate thought about what constitutes civic engagement, the role of civic ritual in American political culture, and ways in which discourses serve rhetorical objectives in civic ritual. Other materials are designed to document instances and collections of discourses used to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday.