Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

What DID Abraham Lincoln’s Voice Sound Like ?

lincoln seated

Re-creating the voice of someone you’ve never  heard must be pretty daunting. Daniel Day Lewis’s  light squeak in the role of Abe Lincoln  has not made all movie goers happy, though it’s historically more accurate than the  low, deep baritone we imagine the great orator would have.

In an article in The Smithsonian, Lincoln historian Harold Holzer says that  “Lincoln’s voice, according to contemporary descriptions, was a little shriller, a little higher”.  Holzer, who has written over 40 books on Lincoln,  pored over reports of his public appearances…. eyewitness accounts ….and newspaper commentaries on the Lincoln-Douglas debates… and he says one of the only things that can be said with certainty is that Lincoln was a tenor. 

Watch  this interview, where Holzer appraises past movie Lincolns. He says that Day-Lewis probably got it right.   And in  this interview,  Day-Lewis  explains how he developed the voice.

“A voice is such a deep personal reflection of character, not just a composite of sounds…If I’m lucky, I begin to hear… the sound of a voice, in my mind’s ear … my inner ear, like a door opening, and then I set about trying to reproduce that….to discover that voice in one’s own body”

Here are some contemporary quotes:

Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered.
–William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887

But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.
–Abram Bergen in Intimate Memories of Lincoln

The [second] inaugural address was received in most profound silence. Every word was clear and audible as the ringing and somewhat shrill tones of Lincoln’s voice sounded over the vast concourse.
–Noah Brooks in Washington in Lincoln’s Time

What did you think of  the voice? Use the comments to share your views.


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This entry was posted on 18/02/2013 by in Public speaking, Speeches on video, Voice production and tagged , , , .

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