The Power of Words: How Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed America

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Both President Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. mastered the technique of using words to effectively influence and persuade their audience into action. Their words delivered during difficult times in America’s history are still referenced today in speeches of prominent politicians. Additionally, their words are continuously analyzed for the rhetorical strategies applied in order for others to understand the techniques and apply them to their own speeches or writings.

However, President Lincoln was able to use his words more effectively in order to influence his audience in comparison to Martin Luther King Jr. President Lincoln was able to appeal to the audience based on his character (ethos) since he was the President of the United States during the war and understood the reason for the Civil War. Also, he established ethos in the statement “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (Lincoln 107).

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In this statement he references the American Revolution, making the connection for the audience between both wars. Americans had recently fought and won their liberty from England in the American Revolution. They can understand the reason for the Civil War since they had fought and won the battle against England to have equality for all men.

Consequently, Lincoln applied logic when he makes the connection between the American Revolution and the Civil War that was taking place. Furthermore, the rhetorical strategy pathos, was applied in the Gettysburg Address in order to use the audience’s emotional state as a tool to drive them into action. The audience in all probability was tired of the long and difficult war between the North and South. Therefore, President Lincoln, values his audience’s emotional condition with the statement “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure” (Lincoln, 107).

In this statement saying “we” instead of “you” he establishes with the audience that “we” are in this together and have the same emotional ties to the war. Additionally, Lincoln appeals to the audience’s emotions in the phrase, “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live” (Lincoln, 107).

This statement aims at the emotional state of the speaker and the audience on that battlefield since they were able to see where many had given their lives. During this speech, the spectators were probably enraged or dejected on the demise of friends and the destruction of their country. Lincoln appeals to the audience’s emotions with the mention of “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” (Lincoln, 107).

President Lincoln meant for the spectators to feel proud of the soldiers and honor the sacrifices that they made for the country. Lincoln’s statement inspires the audience to renew the fight for those who had given their lives, for a new country where all men are created equal.

Like President Lincoln’s speech, Martin Luther King’s letter discusses the need for all men to be created equal. The theme of both is equality for black men in different points in history. However, MLK was only a minister when he wrote his letter in comparison to Lincoln’s status as head of his country. While in jail for the marches being held in Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr. responded to a letter from eight clergymen. This letter was in response to their statement calling his present activities “unwise and untimely” (King 94).

Dr. King responded since they were clergymen like himself even though he viewed their statement as one of many criticisms of his work (King 94). He applied many literary devices in his response, such as the devices ethos, logos and pathos. Dr. King was able to establish credibility with his audience in the first paragraph when he stated “But since I felt that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth” (King 94).

Also, ethos can be seen in the second paragraph when Dr. King stated he is serving in the capacity of president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that operates in every southern state. Further in the paragraph ethos again is used when Dr. King wrote that he was invited to Birmingham with members of his staff (King 94). This statement reinforces Dr. King’s role as a minister and level of respect in the civil rights movement in order to be invited Birmingham Dr. King throughout this letter makes a connection to the clergymen and guarantees his credibility when he wrote “I am in the rather unique position of being the son, grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers” (King 103).

This statement demonstrates, Dr. King’s foundation in the church and the Christian beliefs associated with the church which should facilitate a connection with his audience. Additionally, logos is used when they were requested to consider a more concrete example of just and unwanted laws (King 98).

Laws are facts and have to be taken into consideration as the conditions of the time are analyzed. Analyzing the laws is important for the civil rights movement to become successful. Furthermore, pathos can be seen when Dr. King described the Negro’s inner and outer fears; “when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King 97). Also, Dr. King uses pathos in the following statement: “Something within the Negro has reminded him of his birthright of freedom and something without has reminded him that it can be gained” (King 101).

These examples demonstrate that the author aspired for his audience to feel what the Negro experienced on a daily basis since their daily lives were different and they were disconnected from the Negro’s experience. Dr. King uses language to connect with his audience by showing his connection to the church, referencing laws and arousing sympathy for the cause. He uses what the audience can relate to in their daily lives, for them to understand the goals of the civil rights movement.

Upon review, both speakers were able to effectively use the rhetorical triangle in communicating with their audiences at that time in history. However, President Lincoln was able to use the triangle the best since a minimal of words were utilized. These words were short and to the point. He does not use “big words” the language was simple and everyone there could understand the message of the speech. Additionally, the location of the speech was on the battlefield where the audience was part of the setting.

The audience was in the moment and did not have to visualize Lincoln’s words or place themselves in the situation. Also, everyone present was invested in the cause emotionally and prepared for action. However, Martin Luther King’s audience did not have a vested interest in his cause. King’s letter was in response to eight white Alabama clergymen who never viewed King as their equal because of his race. Therefore, even though King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” may have more examples of various rhetorical strategies, it does not move into action the audience it is directed towards.

Consequently, since Lincoln’s words were linked with emotion, logic and authority he was able to effectively influence and persuade his audience into action. An action which was to the end the war in order to save the country for all Americans.

Work Cited

  1. Jr. King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The Belmont Abbey College Reader. Miss Mitchell, Angela, Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.
  2. Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address”. The Belmont Abbey College Reader. Miss Mitchell, Angela, Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.

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The Power of Words: How Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed America. (2016, Jul 27). Retrieved from

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