Lincoln the Storyteller

December 04, 2012 Michael Reedy


The movie Lincoln ably tells the story of a master storyteller. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, a politician and a visionary.  Steven Spielberg shows that no matter the audience, Lincoln was always ready with a story.  By telling stories, he made the audience listen.  When people listen, they may be persuaded to follow you, whether they agree with you or not.  As history shows, people listened to Lincoln.

He was not universally considered a great speaker when he was nominated for President in 1860.  On May 19 of that year, the New York Herald decried Lincoln’s nomination: “The conduct of the republican party in this nomination is a remarkable indication of small intellect, growing smaller.  They pass over … statesmen and able men, and they take up a fourth rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar.” 

Spielberg and the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, do not shy away from Lincoln’s grammar or his love of a dirty story, both seemingly at odds with someone considered a master orator.  Lincoln tosses off “ain’ts” and colloquial phrases (“flub dubs”) while telling stories, but they do not jar or seem out of place because he speaks directly to his audience.   These words fit the story and the mood.  Lincoln knows his audience and he reaches out to them.

Good lawyers are storytellers.  Lincoln honed his storytelling skills while riding the legal circuit in downstate Illinois.  He and other lawyers and judges rode horses from county to county, and court would start when they arrived.  Local townspeople attended court as a form of theater, to hear gossip and see justice done.  Lincoln had to reach those people, to convince and persuade them.  He did so with stories, jokes, and empathy. 

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s riveting history, Team of Rivals (a source book for Lincoln), tells how Lincoln’s political rivals thought him a backwoods hick.   However, these men, most of whom Lincoln invited to serve in his Cabinet, later realized that his humility, sense of humor, and folksy wisdom were just comfortable clothes hiding a political genius. 

Lincoln could tell a ribald story about an English outhouse with a painting of George Washington, and he could give a ten-sentence speech at Gettysburg that has reverberated for 150 years.  He could tell whatever story, use whatever words he needed, to reach his audience.  By telling stories, he made history. 

Another master storyteller, Leo Tolstoy, wrote in 1909, “The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln.  His example is universal and will last thousands of years. … He was bigger than his country – bigger than all the Presidents together … and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”


{NOTE: Both the lengthy quotes used here, from Tolstoy and the New York Herald, are posted at the start of Team of Rivals.  If you are interested in Lincoln, and if you enjoyed the movie, read this book.}