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Lincoln The Orator
Our most talented writer-president always wrote his own material and sweated hours over it
Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
Nearly three years later, Lincoln delivered yet another carefully prepared speech—at Gettysburg. A Massachusetts newspaper noted that while “strong feelings and a large brain" had been its parents, “a little painstaking” had served as its “accoucheur.” Accoucheur is a French word, archaic even in Lincoln’s day, that described the assistant to a doctor or a midwife at childbirth. The journalist who revived the word perceptively (if pompously) observed that even a brief speech like the Gettysburg Address required “work, work, work”—words Lincoln once used to advise an aspiring law student about his career.
The Cooper Union speech had required much more than “a little painstaking” as its accoucheur. It had called for exhaustive scholarly investigation. And it required a distinctively cool and dispassionate approach—not quite reaching the depth of feeling later voiced at Gettysburg, but elevated beyond the kind of partisan invective that had characterized Lincoln’s earlier campaign speeches. As a singular summons requiring a once-in-a-lifetime approach, Cooper Union required—and elicited—from Lincoln burdensome research, cogent legalistic argument, and physical labor on a level he never before or again approached. That exhaustive research and solitary speechwriting became for Lincoln the rule, not the exception, marks him as one of the most gifted and dogged of all writer-presidents.