|Courtesy, Library of Congress|
Abraham Lincoln is not known as a great writer. He is known as one of America’s greatest presidents. Yet he penned one of the most memorable pieces of writing in history: the Gettysburg Address. He loved writing and understood its power to provoke and inspire and create change.
He even wrote a lecture on writing, which he delivered to the lucky members of the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College located in Jacksonville, Illinois. Here is an excerpt.
…And yet, for the three thousand years during which printing remained undiscovered after writing was in use, it was only a small portion of the people who could write, or read writing; and consequently the field of invention, though much extended, still continued very limited. At length printing came. It gave ten thousand copies of any written matter, quite as cheaply as ten were given before; and consequently a thousand minds were brought into the field where there was but one before. This was a great gain; and history shows a great change corresponding to it, in point of time. I will venture to consider it, the true termination of that period called “the dark ages.”
Wondering what good writing can do in the real world? Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863 inspired Union troops to victory during the bloodiest depths of the American Civil War.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln was a great writer and a great president because he understood the power of writing — its power to influence, its power to help him get things done. He didn’t need a ghostwriter. He was his own ghostwriter.
What does great writing do in the real world?
It changes thoughts.
It changes minds.
John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, wrote a great piece on the power of writing in Lincoln: a man of his words. It’s worth a look.