Lessons From Lincoln’s Farewell Address

Lessons From Lincoln: What You Say When You Give A Heartfelt Speech
By Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

“It is a gem that rightly took its place as one of the greatest of his speeches, but that is seldom recognized for what it truly represents: a stunning example not of spontaneous eloquence, but of Lincoln’s meticulous ability to edit and rewrite, even under pressure.”
–Harold Holzer, Lincoln President Elect (2008:300)

Lincoln’s beautiful speech that has come down to us is not exactly the speech that the President-elect gave at the train station when he departed for his inauguration. The speech Lincoln actually gave was chunkier, less poetic, less eloquent. The final version of that speech was carefully crafted by Lincoln himself as his train pulled away from Springfield, Illinois.

That day, a somber throng of supporters followed the President-elect to the station to see him off. There were old friends, and relatives, and new supporters

It was very emotional, and many in the audience were in tears. Lincoln, himself was visibly moved. Eyewitness James C. Conklin wrote: “His own breast heaved with emotion, and he could scarcely command his feelings sufficiently to commence.”

Prior to his departure Lincoln had told journalists not to expect much of a speech. He would just make a few obligatory remarks.

But when New York Tribune journalist Henry Villard heard the speech, and witnessed the reaction of the crowd, he told Lincoln that he thought his remarks should be shared with the nation. Lincoln agreed, and as the train pulled out of the station, Lincoln began writing.

Here is the final, Lincoln-edited version of the farewell speech:

My friends — No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Commentary
Just because you may never give a speech that will find its way into the history books is no reason why you can’t learn lessons from one that did. Here are six lessons.

One. Never give the same speech once. That’s the provocative and wise advice from author Harvey MacKay. In other words, if you take the time to do something well, look for further ways to use what you created. Villard recognized an opportunity to communicate a very important message to the nation. Lincoln agreed, and used his short speech to convey a special message of hope and confidence: “With the assistance of the Divine Being,” he wrote, “I cannot fail.”

Two. Edit, edit, edit. There are few if any pieces you will ever write or speeches you will ever give that cannot stand some improvement. You will almost always find something that could be excised or added or polished.

Three. Try out elements of your speech before you use them in public. Great speakers always do this. They do a test-drive. Lincoln virtually worshiped George Washington, and never thought of himself as an equal. But Lincoln felt that his burden—saving a union that was hurtling toward civil war—was a burden even greater than the one that Washington had carried. Shortly before his departure, Lincoln had said as much in a private conversation. Apparently Lincoln’s remarks went down well, so he incorporated the concept into his public comments: “…with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.

Four. Make sure the written version works as spoken English. Lincoln made it a practice to read aloud everything he wrote before he let it go. Whether you read the final version of the farewell address, or say it aloud, it works.

Five. Be poetic if you have poetic gifts. Lincoln loved poetry, steeped himself in it, and wrote poetry himself. He memorized Shakespeare, and Burns, and the King James Version of the Bible. So, when he revised his spoken remarks, it shouldn’t surprise us that his thoughts took poetic form. For example, he used antiphony in “Here my children have been born/and one is buried.” But do not go overboard with poetic flourishes. Better to make a plain, unadorned, heartfelt speech than to give one that is flowery and over-written.

Six. Touch emotions. Lincoln was a great believer in the power of logic, and his speeches have the power of a mathematical argument. But at Springfield he let the audience briefly look into his heart, feel its beat, and hear his anguish. And they were moved to tears. He expressed his gratitude. Expressing gratitude the way Lincoln did is one of the most powerful things you can do. ” To this place, and the kindness of these people”—poetry again—“I owe every thing.” He spoke of his family and of his dead son Eddie who was buried there. Then he said “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return…”

Lincoln had a premonition, and had spoken about it, that he would not live to return,

He was right. Lincoln never returned to Springfield until another train returned with two coffins—his own and his son Willie’s—to be buried there.

From the book, Lincoln on Communication.

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Gene Griessman is an award-winning professional speaker, actor, and consultant. His video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, contact us at 404-435-2225 or abe@mindspring.com Learn more about Gene Griessman at presidentlincoln.com and atlantaspeakersbureau.com

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