Lincoln Spoke for Two Minutes and Changed the World

This last week we did a lot of reading and talking together on campus about the great Abraham Lincoln. Transformational leadership was our topic, and Lincoln was our model. We hosted my longtime friend, Lincoln scholar and biographer Ron White (Ronald C. White, Jr.), as our keynote speaker for the Day of Common Learning. What a wonderful time this was. What an important topic to consider all across our campus for a day.

I will be talking about Lincoln in a later post or two, but today I want to say something about good language, good writing, and why it matters. Sometimes we are told that text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook have taken over the world. There was a Wall Street Journal article to that effect just this past week. Email is passé, the article said, because it requires of us too much language. The world is moving fast and so is texting: It is short, succinct, to the point, direct in its connections, and so on.

Don’t believe it for a moment. As we looked at Lincoln this last week through the eyes of our scholar Ron White, we were reminded that Lincoln was a writer. He was careful with language. He was nuanced, subtle, clear. He was a leader through his writing and speaking. He wrote speeches and letters and op-eds and even notes that he stuck in the top of his stovepipe hat. He was writing all of the time. I like that.

He was a great listener, too, and a careful and voracious reader. He was reflective, sometimes brooding and melancholy. But out of all of this he was a writer, and out of his writing, he figured out what he thought and how he should lead. And when the chips were down he would turn to the great writing of the ages — to the Bible, to Shakespeare, to the Constitution, to the Declaration of Independence.

He believed that good language could not only capture ideas, but good language could communicate, motivate, clarify, encourage. Good language could stir people to action. Good language could move people in the right direction. Good language could heal the wounds of a nation. Good language could move the nation toward understanding its own identity. This is what Lincoln did through his writing.

Some of his speeches — in particular the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address — are some of the most important writing in American history and literature. They are quite simply magnificent. Ron White calls the Second Inaugural one of the “sacred texts” of American history.

Lincoln’s speeches were short. Perhaps that’s a lesson we need to learn from Lincoln. He was not texting-short or Twitter-short, but when the great orator of the day, Edward Everett, gave the keynote address at Gettysburg for the dedication of the memorial site for 50,000 soldiers who died there, he spoke for over two hours. Lincoln spoke for two minutes. Does anyone remember what Everett said? Less is more, Ron White advised us this last week. Lincoln is our model.

We must be careful that we do not lose the ability to write and to speak with care and attention to good language. Leaders must take great care to lead with good ideas and with good language. Lincoln spoke for two minutes and changed the world. We’ve got much to learn from that.


Categories: Change, Leadership, Transformation

13 replies

  1. I find it curious that this blog on Lincoln’s careful use and delivery of words is juxtaposed to the blog on the heated health care debate. Both call on our leaders to be clear in their message, brief as possible in their delivery. As an opponent to the war in Irag while the debate on WMD’s was still being waged in the UN , I would say that the message needs to be as complicated as necessary to accurately and truthfully deliver the facts to support the premise that supports the goals the country should be trying to achieve. Unfortunately, the message to wage war, well delivered with effective strategy, was misleading and proved disastrous, in my opinion. Just as unfortunate was the fact that a large segment of the population was, and remains, susceptible to simple messages while most of our issues are complex. Words are critical and will always be more effective than abbreviations, but the substance of the words can issue life or death. By His Word were not our worlds brought into being? Anytime we utilize words, we accept the responsibility of some degree of power. We were blessed, as a country, that Lincoln was a man of integrity and conviction as well as a master of words and emotional delivery.

  2. I enjoyed this thoughtful essay on Lincoln’s writing and note it honors his gifts without a word wasted.

  3. Thanks for the post, Dr. Eaton. I am reminded of the quote by Blaise Pascal, “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” I, too, was inspired by Ron White’s lecture on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. It was a good reminder that being succinct and efficient in communication is much more difficult – and often more impactful – than going on and on to get a point across.

    To Leda’s comment: While I can appreciate your point that sometimes more detail is needed, it seems that you’re also asserting that short implies a lack of content, and I disagree with that proposition. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is a great example of a speech that is so carefully crafted and nuanced that it conveys an incredible amount of information in a mere two minutes. The care that Lincoln took in writing this speech is evident in that it is short and to the point, and yet still packed with meaningful content.

    I agree that our country is seriously lacking in its tolerance for nuanced answers to complex issues, but I believe that Lincoln sets a good example for today’s politicians in his ability to address the complex issues of his day in a brief, accessible, and challenging way to his audience.

  4. I am reminded of Peter Norvig’s excellent satire on what if Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg Address on Powerpoint, on how technology gets in the way of important commuication – it will make you both cringe and laugh:

    You and Norvig both have made excellent points!

  5. Dr. Eaton, I really appreciate this post. Being from the generation that is focused on short messages that you talk about, I know from personal experience that all to often are there people looking down on the people my age for constantly communicating. While we are not speaking with the grandeur that Lincoln spoke with, small conversations can build relationships. I personally experienced some of that through facebook this summer, meeting people who, like me, would be new to the school this year.

    I still remember in elementary school when we were learning to write summaries. For the first time I can remember, our teacher told us to keep it short, and celebrated the one-paragraph essays. After hearing Dr. White speak, I really did understand the importance of being brief. And being long-winded myself there is a lesson there. Less is more.

    So Dr. Eaton, when will we be seeing you on Twitter?

  6. OK, so I loved the post, but I REALLY loved the link to Peter Norvig satire. It was spot on in this current culture where it seems if it can’t we said in bullet-points it’s not worth saying at all!

  7. I agree with the comments from Leda Buller ” I find it curious that this blog on Lincoln’s careful use and delivery of words is juxtaposed to the blog on the heated Healthcare debate

  8. I agree with the comments from Leda Buller ” I find it curious that this blog on Lincoln’s careful use and delivery of words is juxtaposed to the blog on the heated
    Health care debate.However, Lincoln as evidenced in his speeches and writings was a leader extraordinaire.

    At the end of the day, it is not what our leaders/politicains say that matters as much as what they DO or dont do. Actions speak loder than words.

    By the way, I too oppose the war on Iraq and the whole western world is funding it indirectly throught the rediculously high cost of pertrol.

  9. Great effort, it’s true that good language and good writing really matters. well, being a good leader, one must take care about its communication and I think this is the one important point from leadership qualities

  10. Sometimes one sentence changes history.

    Here are some of my favorite examples:

    Kennedy – “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

    Helen Keller -Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

    Martin Luther King – “I have a dream…”

  11. It seems like now the words become much more important than the ectual actions. Everyone are trying hard to improve declamatory skills. But why all people are hiding behind beautifull words. Aren’t you all fed up with this?!

  12. There are many great speakers today but unfortunately it is getting harder and harder to find such leaders with vision and integrity as the great Abraham Lincoln.

  13. Writer Adam Gopnik, in “The New Yorker”, noted that, Lincoln’s rhetoric is deliberately Biblical. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that “Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office” sound like something right out of Genesis.

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