What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Us About Life and Writing

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the battle that led to Lincoln’s now-revered Gettysburg Address, which he delivered on November 19, 1863. It wasn’t well received. Here is a sample of the news of the day:

  • The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances … of the President.

–The Chicago Times

  • We pass over the silly remarks of the President.

–Patriot and Union (Harrisburg, PA)

  • The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln … anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.

–The Times (London)

The main speaker was Edward Everett, a onetime president of Harvard and former governor of Massachusetts. He spoke for almost two-and-one-half hours.  The New York Times devoted eight columns to Everett’s expansive remarks and only two inches of one column to Lincoln’s introspective utterances. Abraham Lincoln delivered his 272 words in four minutes.

What can we learn from this highlight of history and its continuing echoes? Time distills meaning, so we can recognize and appreciate that it’s often difficult to see the significance of—and be on the right side of—history as it’s made. My beloved Southland was on the wrong side of history in fighting for slavery during the Civil War. Now, that lesson could well be applied to the present battle over gay civil rights. Unfortunately, the South still seems not to have learned the lesson: Since we are made in God’s image, the Spirit of love, creativity and diversity is within the human spirit–and Spirit shall prevail.

Then, to focus on writing, I tell myself this: Let my appreciation for brevity grow: In good writing, less can be more. Elegance is a dance between brevity and clarity.

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