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Aaron Zelinsky

Aaron Zelinsky

Posted: November 7, 2008 12:29 PM

Obama's Forgotten Inspiration: Theodore Parker


I noted earlier that Obama sought to unify and inspire last Tuesday night, and that he employed two of America's great oratorical figures to do so: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Invoking Lincoln, Obama declared, "Government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth." In a nod to King, Obama exhorted his listeners to, "Put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."

Notably, neither of these memorable quotes originates from Lincoln or King. In fact, they stem from a single man: Theodore Parker, an abolitionist Unitarian minister who died just before the start of the Civil War. In an 1850 speech, Parker defined democracy as "a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people." In an 1853 sermon, Parker proclaimed, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I can calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."

Parker's role in Tuesday night's speech reflects a key rule of rhetoric: in speeches, sweat the small stuff. Parker invented the lines, but he failed to perfect them. Lincoln, King, and Obama re-wrote the lines to make them their own, and to insure that they would roll off the tongue in a way Parker's did not. In speech, the details matter. "Don't ask the question, what your country can do for you? Think about, What you can do for your country," lacks the rhetorical zing of Kennedy's famous phrase. (Incidentally, the rhetorical device Kennedy used is called chiasmus, the reversal of the structure of two clauses for rhetorical emphasis, such as 'it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog').

Obama's invocation of Parker also reflects a shift in voter demographics. The Obama campaign did a much better job of reaching out to young, white evangelicals than the Kerry campaign did. It's therefore unsurprising that Obama employs the rhetoric of an earlier evangelical in his speeches. Moreover, Parker wasn't just any preacher; he was a mega-pastor of his time, with a congregation numbering over 7000. Parker was also an outspoken abolitionist; he no doubt would have been proud that his words figured prominently in the victory speech of America's first black president.

Lincoln and King will certainly reappear in Obama's future speeches, whether quoted directly or modified slightly. But keep an eye out for Theodore Parker too; he's got a few more great lines that could use a little polishing.