Analyzing Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address as a Dramatist Narrative

Kenneth Burke’s “dramatism” is a theory that isolates motive in communication. Dissecting all aspects and directions of speech, Burke’s dramatism can be used effectively in analyzing Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Using dramatism’s pentad component, Lincoln’s intentions and the gravity of the setting in which the inaugural address was given become clear. Essentially, dramatism brings to the foreground aspects of speech and communication that would erstwhile be dismissible. Through most of pentad’s five components (of agent, act, agency, scene, and purpose, all but scene), the inaugural address reveals new dimensions and becomes an entirely different vehicle of communication. Today, dramatism as a means for rhetorical analysis is an important facet of journalism, manifested by the popular five questions: “who, what, where, why, and how” (Cohrs 2002).

The timing of Lincoln’s speech is an important factor in further understanding Lincoln as an agent and the precise communicative maneuvering he employed. The American political and social climate was highly volatile, with the urban north quickly condemning and pursuing legislature to end slavery. A largely industrial economy, the northern states emulated Europe’s liberal progressivism, and in many ways reflected what America’s founding fathers set to achieve in the establishment of the United States. The south, on the other hand, was a culture ruled by a white bourgeois who relied on slavery to restrict production costs for the cotton trade, the sole means of livelihood for many plantations. Industrialization was out of the question, as the south’s population density waned in comparison to its northern counterpart. The inefficacy of industrialized labor and the abolition of slavery were evident; the high profit margins created by the cotton trade made agrarian social progression economically illogical. Disgruntled by the electoral power of the north, the south felt disadvantaged and helpless in the American democracy. By the time Lincoln gave his first inaugural address in 1861, several southern states had discussed secession, citing a biased executive branch of government as the primary cause for their concern. The pentad’s agent component, Lincoln, further represented the political inequities of antebellum America. The northern American states were far more heavily populated than the rural south. Consequently, it followed that the Kentucky-born and Illinois-raised Lincoln would be elected. Southern statesmen were therefore naturally wary of Lincoln’s intentions as president, with a northern, Republican administration in office.

It was incumbent upon the elected president to preserve the fragile Union, and the industrialized northern states were constantly vocalizing their disdain for slavery. As they represented a larger constituency, Lincoln would have to accede to their requests. This meant the north was a larger priority than the south, yet another point estranging southern support from the Republican president. Yet another point of discontent in the southern consciousness was Lincoln’s relatively humble background. Southern politicians were the aristocracy of the agrarian world, whose fortunes could be traced for several generations. Lincoln, however, was of modest beginnings, the son of a poor, Virginia-born frontiersman. The nature of Lincoln as a dramatist agent lent challenges to the composition of the inaugural address: the address had to show the southern states that they could trust their leader as well as lay to rest any doubts surrounding the future of the institution of slavery. In short, the inaugural address had to let the north remain confident in their selection, and quell any southern concerns of slavery’s abolition.

The act, or inaugural address, was significant in its approach. The address had to be succinct without being curt, authoritative without being overbearing, and accommodating without compromising fortitude. Lincoln’s address had to assure the southern states that the sudden “accession of a Republican Administration” would not “[endanger] their property, [peace], or personal security” (Fehrenbacher 1989, p. 215). Such language is ambiguous, however, given that the industrialization of the south and abolition of slavery would not endanger property, peace, or personal security. Lincoln may have stated his intention to preserve personal protection and peace in a military sense, but he made no guarantees about fiscal stabilization. In his ambiguity, Lincoln stipulated that the south that cooperated and took part in the Union would not be overrun by a military (therein endangered property manifested in destruction of said property), face war (an endangered state of peace) or personal injury (presented in the form of military casualties). Though Lincoln stated clearly that he had “no inclination” to “interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists”, he made no guarantees to preserve slavery; in the same speech, Lincoln stated clearly his intention to “provide by law [the enforcement]” of the constitutional clause guaranteeing “that citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in” other states (Fehrenbacher 1989, p. 217). In addressing the nation with these conflicting contentions, Lincoln made no outright statements, guaranteeing that his administration would not tamper with the lifestyle of the southern states. However, no American president can change the constitution or make laws independently; American legal processes are changed involving all three bodies of government. Though Lincoln himself may never have had the “inclination” to tamper with the institution of slavery, it did not ensure the rest of the government would concur. Even his statement regarding the enforcement of “privileges and immunities of citizens” was successfully neutral. When applied to white citizens in the south, the statement suggested an egalitarian political field for southerners and northerners. When applied to black slaves (then considered limited citizens), however, it suggested an elevation in rights of blacks in the south to match those of blacks in the north, which in turn meant the abolition of slavery.

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