The Lessons of Lincoln in 2015


What happened to spring? Granted, the bitching about winter was old long ago. But as the man in the market said to me last week, “Spring? That was last Thursday.”

No complaints about 80 degrees and sunny. We welcome it with open arms and windows. Suddenly the world is filled with people again. Music is in the air. Budding trees, flowering beds. Outdoor cafes and park benches beckon. Lightheartedness is palpable. Longer days are light therapy. More gets done in a day with renewed energy. Time to don our shades and have some fun. Imagine that.

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Frankly, if I had my druthers, I’d opt for a little more spring. We live in the northeast, for heaven’s sake. Four seasons, not two. Even the birds are confused. We are creatures of subtlety rather than extreme. By nature, we’re accustomed to a stepped approach — one, I believe, as important for the psyche as for the flesh. We need a shoulder season. In fact, we need two shoulders – let’s call them spring and fall – to stretch ourselves and keep our heads on straight. No one I know is craning their neck for a look back at last winter, but still, what’s the rush?

abraham_lincoln_1_by_ipiranga-d5wxxilBack when 56,152,233 of us in the northeast were waiting for the snow to melt, it was a breath of fresh air to attend a talk given by historian Ronald C. White, Jr..

An Abraham Lincoln scholar and author of several best-selling and prize-winning studies of Lincoln, White recently spent two days with students, faculty and the greater community at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, MA. As the country commemorated 150 years since Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, I assumed the talk would focus on events of that time. Instead, we gained a different look at Lincoln. In fact, with White’s discussion, called Abraham Lincoln in 2015: Wisdom for Today, we lucky listeners came away with insight and new appreciation for the 16th President’s lessons for our world. Today’s world. It was less his what and more his how. Any question from those in the audience (age 16 or 86) on how someone born 206 years ago could teach us something about now (seemingly light years from then) quickly became history.

Beginning with a single sheet of paper handed to each of us and printed on both sides with excerpts from six different speeches delivered by Lincoln between 1832 and 1862, White shared and showed. Presenting from the stage of the new performing arts center at the nation’s oldest boarding school, White chose not to show Lincoln’s words on a big screen with high-tech projection. Instead we followed along as White read, slowly, each excerpt, then discussed its importance to those alive in 2015 and presumably those in attendance.

Though he was presenting only a fragment of each address, White’s points were clear. He started with Lincoln’s “First Announcement of Candidacy for Political Office,” from March 15, 1832:

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend.

Ugh, said the marketer in me: Lincoln was no self-promoter. How could he possibly have achieved such prominence? Admit to “peculiarity”? “I am young and unknown”? Aren’t we taught to focus on our strengths? Where’s the wisdom in this?

Then there was his “Notes for Law Lecture,” from July 1, 1850(?):

I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points where I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful…

Not accomplished”? “…where I have failed”? No, no, no! Speak in the positive! You’re being too honest, Abe!

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The address goes on:

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Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated. It is the lawyer’s avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech.

Amen. I like this. Public speaking is, as my uncle (once president of the American Trial Lawyer’s Association) said to me, the single most important skill a person, any age, any calling, can have. Cultivate that, he said, in yourself and in your children. It’s critical for success in the world. My uncle Tom, President Lincoln, and I seem to at least agree on this point. Then Lincoln went on further:

Discourage litigation . . . Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser – in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a surprising opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

Compromise? Business enough? Is that a thing?

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White’s intent was to use these and four others (“Address Before The Young Men’s Lyceum,” from 1838; “First Inaugural Address,” from 1861; “Letter to the Springfield Rally,” from 1863; and “Meditation on the Divine Will,” from 1862(?)”) to explain the relevance today of choices made 150 years ago by Lincoln as writer, thinker and communicator.

I was heartened to learn something about how Lincoln prepared for a speech. According to a 1866 lecture by William H. Herndon:

Mr. Lincoln thought his speeches out on his feet walking in the streets: he penned them in small scraps — sentences, and paragraphs, depositing them in his hat for safety. When fully finished, he would recopy, and could always repeat easily by heart — so well thoughted, shotted, and matured were they.

President Lincoln likely would scoff at the notion (or maybe not) of what we call takeaways, but here are a few margin notes and audience observations from Dr. White’s presentation:

On virtue:

  • We must be willing to admit our mistakes.
  • If he had lived, he would have been well positioned to lead with strength and forgiveness.
  • A great mediator, he knew how to bring people together.
  • He was a man guided by humility, wisdom, and respect for others.

On words and writing:

  • Simplify — less is more.
  • It is important to edit one’s own writing.
  • His writing is poetry, capturing the basic rhythm of our language.
  • He generally uses an active not passive voice.
  • His words both teach and discipline.
  • His writing, even his speechwriting, is deeply personal.

On the importance of public debate and public speaking:

  • Cynical about public speaking early in life, Lincoln was distrustful of words.
  • Lincoln’s speeches were laced with logic, preparation, persuasion and power.
  • In Lincoln’s day, you would be laughed out of Congress if you read your speech.

On delivering an address:

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  • When unable to attend a scheduled rally, he sent his notes with instruction to “Please read it slowly.”
  • Lincoln spoke slowly and deliberately, carefully choosing words that sound alike and using strong syllables.
  • In our not-too-distant past, children were required to read aloud at school and at home.
  • Lincoln believed strongly that reading aloud focused the mind, aided in preparation, and triggered multiple senses: sight, hearing, emotion.

On communicating:

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  • A gifted wordsmith who was encouraged early to do more speaking in public, communication was to become a hallmark and one of his greatest gifts.

With notes scribbled in every margin and white space on that double-sided handout, mine are just fragments of the fragments. Not particularly well-thoughted or well-shotted. But they were inspired by a man who has held Lincoln’s own papers in his hands, who knows Lincoln as well as anyone alive today. That evening, while waiting for our spring, White’s brilliant insights into Lincoln’s carefully crafted words revealed the back story of the President’s own brilliance. Combined, they each beckon us to sit for a moment, to reflect less on the what and more on the how. They cause us to listen, to see, to consider the importance of our every choice, right down to a three-letter word in Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

…when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

To speak clearly. To write well. To communicate openly. To practice patience. To act with respect and humility. To embrace change. To stand tall. There you’ll have wisdom — this year and for centuries to come. Lincoln’s relevance cuts across fields of interest, walks of life, colors of skin, and generations of people, now as it did then, perhaps most powerfully through the words he chose.

Mud season, shoulder season, growing season, spring: gradually or abruptly, seasons will turn. To focus on enduring values and skills as critical now as they were 200 years ago, who can argue with that? Who, may I ask, can argue with Abraham Lincoln?

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Leslie Cargill
Leslie Cargill is a “smarketer” and communicator, privileged to work with leading brands like Boston Ballet, United Way, the Museum of Science and the Boston Red Sox. From baseball to ballet, she advances experience-based programs in the arts, tourism, education, entertainment, healthcare, fitness and sports. While the goal is to retain and grow an existing base of business, the trick is in developing new or "non-traditional" audiences. She was Director of Marketing and Communications with Boston Ballet before returning to her consulting practice where she serves as advisor, project manager and interim CMO for her clients. She believes in a good mix of marketing basics, a campaign approach, and both program and institutional strategies in branding, positioning, messaging and communicating. A dyed-in-the wool New Englander, she splits her time between Boston and her family home on the coast of Maine. She can be reached at Or call Leslie at 617.913.9000.