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.