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What Did Lincoln Say about Extemporaneous Speaking?

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This post was written by Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.

As any debate team knows, the ability to communicate arguments and craft rebuttals extemporaneously can be essential. We began wondering how historically well-regarded orators fared with extemporaneous speaking. What might President Abraham Lincoln, for example, have said on the subject? We posed this question to Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division, and her answer was somewhat surprising. “Perhaps because of Lincoln’s appreciation for language and the care with which he crafted his public addresses, he actually was not comfortable with extemporaneous speaking. Or at least not in the sense of addressing a public audience.”

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, Sunday, March 04, 1860 (Report from Exeter, New Hampshire)

Lincoln’s sentiments about public speaking are evident in various primary sources in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. For example, while on a “little speech-making tour,” Lincoln wrote to his wife from New Hampshire on March 4, 1860 (days after his Cooper Union speech): “I have been unable to escape this toil…The speech at New-York, being within my calculation before I started, went off passably well, and gave me no trouble whatever. The difficulty was to make nine others, before reading audiences, who have already seen all my ideas in print—”. Lincoln had to continually refresh his speech for audiences who may have already read about it – and this was a “toil” for him. Invite your students to speculate why!

Image 1 of Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916: Abraham Lincoln, 1850-1860 (Notes for lecture on law)

Lincoln also revealed a skeptical opinion about extemporaneous speaking in these draft notes for a lecture to beginning lawyers (transcription notes also provide additional context). Though he cautioned against “relying too much” on the tactic, he advised the young professionals that “Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated— It is the lawyer’s avenue to the public— However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business, if he can not make a speech…” Do your students agree? Why or why not? How might this advice apply to other professions besides law?

So, what is needed for successful extemporaneous speaking? Some say that elements of resourcefulness, creativity, agility, and of course, preparation are important. As Lincoln suggested, the skill can be a valuable asset – even for students who are uncomfortable with it. Students can learn more about the nuances of Lincoln’s speaking voice and speech delivery from this blog post by Michelle Krowl.

Let us know in the comments what your students learned from reading Lincoln’s thoughts.


  1. I have to agree with Mr. Lincoln’s comments. There are and were times when speaking at length is an appropriate tactic, but for the most part to continue a speech too long only serves to alienate the listener. Even for lawyers, there is a time to go into the minutia of irrelevancy, but only when extemporaneous facts must be elucidated. Often the listener will tune out and only through the review of a text version can they discern the necessities therein.

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