Civil society and civil discourse: Eloquence and hope in the communications of presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Barack Obama

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5/20/2020

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Abstract

During times of difficulty, Americans traditionally turn towards the President for guidance and leadership. The trope of hope is a critical part of achieving these goals. Hope is the attitude of mind that is based on the expectation that something positive can happen in relation to one’s life, community, or the world at large. During times of crisis, hope can unite the population, encourage new possibilities, and effect change. Through the decades, presidential speeches have tended to posit an epideictic ideal: eloquent expressions meant to bring a diverse citizenry an ideal, if not reality, of unity.
The American presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Barack Obama each combined elements of taste, common sense, sympathy, propriety—and hope to posit an epideictic ideal: eloquent expressions meant to bring a diverse citizenry an ideal, if not reality, of unity. Each of these presidents’ style responded to the public values and political shifts of their time to encourage public trust and civil discourse. This study examines how civil discourse is essential to civil society and argues that a) United States presidents have practiced Stoic principles of rhetoric to unify the American people, a practice that is understudied, and b) United States presidents have altered and extended those principles to allow room for appeals based on hope. The study situates presidential rhetoric within the larger context of classical rhetoric and Stoicism. This study analyzes several speeches from each of the selected presidents and draws upon PAC to show how these hopeful speeches have worked to evoke a sense of community and purpose for Americans. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Obama combined the eloquence of clarity and coherence in speech, moral dignity in conduct of character and warmth of personality to advance their visions of civic unity during times of crisis.

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Keywords

Presidential, Stoicism, Hope, Crisis

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