Lincoln is ultimate example of clear, concise writing

Abraham Lincoln's historic Gettysburg Address is the ultimate example of how to recast an issue using few words.

Great writing is the Holy Grail of public relations. It's impossible to tell a compelling story if poorly written.

150 years ago today, the greatest speech in American history - arguably in recorded history - was delivered by President Abraham Lincoln while overlooking the newly created, but still battle scarred cemetery that was being dedicated at Gettysburg, PA.

While the battle had been a turning point in the war - the place where the Union had finally stopped the Confederacy's march north - the speech was a turning point in the evolution of our nation's history, for the words Lincoln spoke that day breathed new meaning into the Declaration of Independence, a document that Lincoln held with biblical reverence.

So much so, in fact, that he considered it, and not the Constitution, as the founding document of the US.

But it troubled Lincoln deeply that the Declaration's central and lasting tenet – “that all men are created equal” - was, in a sense, hollow.

As a young man, he had witnessed scores of slaves, badly scarred from savage beatings, shackled together for transport and auction. It was an indelible moment and marked the beginning of his lifelong struggle to reconcile the brutal institution of slavery with the noble words of equality in his cherished Declaration.

But Lincoln was a practical politician – not an abolitionist. For most of his presidency, he had subordinated the notion of freedom and equality to, in his estimation, the larger cause of preserving the Union.

Writing to Horace Greeley in August 1862, he reminded the newspaper publisher that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.”

He was so steadfast, in fact, in the belief that the war was about the Union, and nothing more, that Lincoln had banished the phrase “all men are created equal” from his public utterances as president. He feared that phrase would be interpreted as equating the war with the cause of freedom and equality rather than union or disunion. It was the last thing he wanted to do.

In the days following Gettysburg and the months leading up to the speech, he began to see things differently. Hearing tales of the bravery and sacrifice that took place during the three-day campaign moved Lincoln deeply. And it's what prompted him to link the Union victory to the Declaration's noble five words in the days following the epic battle.
                                                            
Abraham Lincoln was finally prepared to make the war about more than Union and disunion as he took to the podium at Gettysburg.

For that reason, he had invited his entire cabinet to escort him Gettysburg - all but two made the trip - to witness the dedication ceremony.

Knowing full well the importance of the moment, Lincoln slowly and clearly mouthed the opening sentence to the 10,000 onlookers – “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” - perhaps the most iconic phrase in presidential history.

The great struggle of the war, he concluded – the reason why the fallen had given their “last full measure of devotion” – was so 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.”

After three years of wretched fighting that had left hundreds of thousands of dead, and with the Confederacy on the brink of collapse, Lincoln had finally recast the purpose and meaning of the Civil War. 

More than just preserving the Union, the war had given new meaning to the Declaration of Independence and set the nation on the road toward forming a more perfect Union. And he did it in only 272 words.

Nick Ragone is director of Ketchum's Washington, DC, office.

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