This post begins a series of topical ruminations: neither comprehensive, nor closed; neither final nor finite. I’m trying to free myself from only publishing exposition. In the sage advice of Corey Vilhauer, “write blog posts to think through things and lead to more conversations beyond those posts.”
This is thinking; I welcome conversation.
Historians and rhetoricians share in sacred spaces. After separately analyzing ancient military maneuvers and diagramming decayed prose, they can claim equal investment in how we appreciate, understand, and apply the canon of “great speeches.” Theirs is an incongruous study, to be sure: how else can you describe the analysis of time-worn words, burnished by memory, that once set out to inspire, empower, and define the future?
Anyone with a few dollars and a passing interest in amber can buy a chunk and polish it to use as a paperweight. We admire the color without pausing before the insects caught inside, unaware that they may have been the most evolved arthropods of their time.
Kennedy’s call to go to the moon in September 1962 suffers our similar filtered appreciation, veiled through high-contrast Kodachrome smudged with 50 years’ hindsight. The words are stuck in their time, Moses on the mountain. Only the technical and cultural growth they inspired kept rolling forward, onward, more more more.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Rally, rally, rally! We did.
Kennedy saw the duality of motivation caught in amber. In the same speech, he mentioned one more than 300 years earlier:
“William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
As I write this today, north of Boston, north of the former Plymouth Bay Colony, I can say that worked out well.
Today is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. As a student, I studied both design and rhetoric, and my understanding of experience design coalesced in subjects like the Gettysburg Address. Content creators—content strategists, content marketers, speakers who share their knowledge of those and other areas—do well to explore the rhetorical craft in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln engaged his audience with Biblical allusions, parallelism, dynamic antithesis, and other rhetorical devices that both grounded the topic and buoyed the audience. And he knew his audience well: newspaper reporters in attendance that day heard pointed sentences and parallel structures that enabled them to follow a concise, focused thesis. They maligned Lincoln’s brevity as contemporary oratory style demanded more verbose flourishes, but the words stood on their own. Their audience, in turn, picked up the newspaper the next day to read the speech in full. Readers could burrow into deeper meaning and appreciate Lincoln’s rallying rhetorical style.
Five years prior to his speech at Gettysburg, Lincoln delivered a lecture perhaps even more germane to the work we do. His talk on “Discoveries and Inventions” is a loping, wide-ranging treatise on collaboration, science, and communication. Toward its end, he draws his audience to focus on the value of communicating their process, then pulls them to this premise:
“But speech alone, valuable as it ever has been, and is, has not advanced the condition of the world much. This is abundantly evident when we look at the degraded condition of all those tribes of human creatures who have no considerable additional means of communicating thoughts. Writing—the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world.“
That value is powerful and empowering, but only in as much as we don’t pass it over as obvious in the work we do. Content can be time travel: we weave stories and edit our memories to present not what is, but what we would like to be true—for ourselves, our desires, the causes we support, and the brands we represent. At Gettysburg, Lincoln stood on ground torn by cannonballs. Just four months earlier it had soaked in the blood of 27,000 wounded and nearly 8000 dead. But rather than focus on these individual stories or the victory of the Union over the Confederate soldiers, Lincoln looked forward, speaking in a united plural.
“We are engaged in a great civil war.”
“We are met on a great battle-field 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.” We, and not you or some portion of the collective he specifies by partisan label or name. “We” serves as a common goal, a mutual interest in the future. And just as our choice of words affects our range of thought, Lincoln’s words foreshadow another rhetorical and cultural shift.
Prior to the Civil War, our country was a plural collective: “these United States.” The United States took the plural form of the verb: “The United States are…” But following the Civil War, we began to culturally and grammatically shift to a singular nation. By 1901, Secretary of State John W. Foster wrote in the New York Times his findings:
“The result of my examination is that, while the earlier practice in referring to the ‘United States’ usually followed the formula of the Constitution, our public men of the highest authority gave their countenance, by occasional use, to the singular verb and pronoun; that since the Civil War the tendency has been toward such use; and that today among public and professional men it has become the prevailing practice.” Writing and rhetoric enshrined “that prevailing practice,” as much as Lincoln invented the world, in how we define a nation. Not in cannonballs and military campaigns alone, but in the words we commit to paper to conclude them.