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.
It must also be acknowledged that slavery, the predominating factor in Lincoln's political struggles, was no ordinary problem and, because of its moral dimension, elevated the passions on all sides. Notably reserved and self-possessed, Lincoln admitted that the prospect of the extension of slavery into the free territories in 1854 "aroused him as he had never been before." From that point on, almost all of Lincoln's rhetorical efforts were in the service of resisting both the expansion of slavery and the destruction of the Union, a resistance which gave his negative constructions a moral focus. "If slavery is not wrong," he famously wrote, "nothing is wrong."
For some examples of the ways that Lincoln makes rhetorical use of the negative, the antithesis is a good place to start. To address the all-important issue of public opinion in a democracy, he first crafted on paper and then proclaimed in the first of his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas: "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed." In his closing speech in the 1858 campaign, he summarized the constitutional stance his opponent had worked so hard to distort: "The legal rights of the Southern people to reclaim their fugitives I have constantly admitted. The legal right of Congress to interfere with their institutions in the states, I have constantly denied." In writing down a concise version of his extemporaneous Springfield Farewell Address after delivery, he wrote: "Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him [Washington], I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail." In speaking forcefully to Southern dissidents at the conclusion of his first inaugural, he said: "You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it."
With antithesis, the negative is often, if not invariably, the fulcrum upon which the expression turns, but the danger is that such a device readily calls attention to itself, which can cheapen the effect. Remarkably, Lincoln's antitheses rarely fall into this category, perhaps in part because of the plainness of his language.
Negation is often employed to emphasize restraint—what is not claimed, or not to be done. When he spoke of his presidential oath in his public letter to Albert G. Hodges, he said: "It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using that power." In this letter, he was at pains to present in detail the numerous provocations he had addressed with restraint in the matter of emancipation. And this is the letter that climaxes with the riveting line, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
But the rhetorical force of the negative in Lincoln's writing is by no means restricted to the expression of restraint. One of his most fervid lines—"Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history" —was offered as a call to action. The Gettysburg Address, the work that makes the most brilliant rhetorical use of the negative, was also something of a rallying cry. Its opening sentences proceed logically toward a pivot point: This is who we are, this is what has happened, this is why we are here, and this is all very well, but . . . . That pivotal "but" prepares the way for the most powerful anaphora in all of American letters: "We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground." These three parallel denials are, in effect, implacable affirmations. Their force as affirmations is partly due to the rhythm and symmetry of these artful repetitions, but also to their being framed in the negative. Nor is this the speech's only notable use of the negative to energize its affirmations: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
It is, in this context, quite notable that the final and most far-reaching affirmation of all is rendered in the negative: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
In his last great speech, the Second Inaugural, Lincoln skillfully borrowed a famous biblical use of the negative to build onto it: "but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully." Finally, there is, perhaps, no better example of what we have been discussing than the phrase that captures the spirit of the president's message in four words: "With malice toward none."
With Lincoln's special affinity for the rhetorical use of the negative, it is little wonder that he continues to be credited with this much-disputed saying: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."
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.
A version of this article appeared January 16, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Power of the Negative.