October 08, 2020 Feature

Mr. Lincoln’s Music: The Tuning of the Final Paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address

Can you learn something from Abraham Lincoln about elegance and power? Yes, you can.

George D. Gopen

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Dear Readers: Please find Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address online and read all four of its paragraphs. This essay concerns only the final paragraph, the one everyone knows best. I haven’t space to reprint the whole speech here. For an explanation of the technique below that I call colometrics, see “What Have the Muses Got to Do with Legal Writing?,” 46 Litigation 20–22 (Spring 2020).

Are you writing briefs, memos, and letters? Can you learn something from Abraham Lincoln about elegance and power? Yes, you can.

Most Americans have encountered and can recall the first eight words of the final paragraph of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Many have called the Second Inaugural Lincoln’s greatest speech. The first paragraph contained 131 words, the second 98, the third 393, and the final one 74. Though the final paragraph is relatively short, it is all one sentence—one final, sustained flight. Let us take a look at how Lincoln makes his lyrical ending soar—into what the ancient rhetoricians called a peroration.

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