Learning from Lincoln’s Compelling Precision

On November 19, 1863 — 150 years ago today — a tall, stressed out man from Illinois stood up to deliver 269 words that changed a country. It took him only two minutes.

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, gave his Gettysburg Address, one of the most legendary speeches in American history, undoubtedly spoken into the most tumultuous period of a then “new nation conceived in Liberty.”

The Civil War had stretched three long years, claiming thousands of lives from the North and South, including my own GGGG-grandfather, a member of the 14th Regiment North Carolina Volunteers. But in the summer of 1863, on the same ground on which Lincoln would give this speech, the bloodiest battle had been fought. Casualities at Gettysburg totaled over 57,000. And though it became a turning point in the war, death was everywhere. It stained the ground and filled the air up to the very moment Lincoln delivered his address. It would have been like smog, we can imagine, a weight of darkness so thick that you could cut it with a knife.

Which is exactly what Lincoln did with his words — his few words.

To be clear, there is nothing particularly Christian about this speech, or Lincoln himself, some historians argue. What makes the speech spectacular — and what is commendable to pastors and Christian leaders — is its precision. It is how he said so much in so little.

In fact, if you had been reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address instead of this blog post, you would be finished … right … about … now.

Lincoln Loved Precision

Even on the Web today, that length makes for short prose — and it’d be an unthinkable address to a nation in so few words. Can you imagine how it would have sounded 150 years ago when they were more accustomed to long-winded orations?

It wasn’t until later that historians and writers would commonly venerate this work by Lincoln. This was new wine in the mid-19th century. But the outstanding element to the address is not brevity for brevity’s sake, but what Lincoln said in the way he said it. He could have given a bad short speech, or a good long speech. What made the speech both good and short is that Lincoln said exactly what he meant to say and no more.

In Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, Allen Guelzo recounts Joseph Gillespie’s observation of Lincoln’s way with words. Gillespie, one of Lincoln’s longtime friends, observed, “He despised everything like ornament or display and confined himself to a dry bold statement of his point and then worked away with sledge-hammer logic at making out his case” (83). Likewise, Isaac Arnold, a political ally of Lincoln, and his best early biographer, said of Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, “However complicated, he would disentangle it, and present the real issue in so simple and clear a way that all could understand” (83). If this were true in Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, when he had to make a case to a judge or jury, it was certainly true of Lincoln’s days as the President, when he had to convey a message to a nation.

Mean Your Point

This is where we can learn.

In our writing and speaking, we should be compelled by the best part of our content, which means it’s not about saying everything we can, but saying the most important thing we can as effectively as possible. And that means, typically, we’ll say it shorter, rather than longer. Christian proclamation, after all, is not merely about transferring information, but delivering a message.

The point of precision is to cut away the excess (hence the –cision). When we communicate, we should stop and ask ourselves: “Do I really mean that?” “Is the adjective overdone?” “Does that sentence contribute anything?”

Publishing fewer words typically takes more time, not less. But often, if God wills, it will have a greater impact, as with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on 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 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.

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