Writing and Rewriting the Speech: Lincoln

By David F. Carr, President, Club Awesome

I’m sharing this for the sake of those who are interested in the process of writing, rewriting, and improving a speech. As a writer, I approach this differently than others who work from a loose outline or plan their speeches in their heads. I do tend to do script them out pretty thoroughly, although I don’t necessarily deliver them exactly as scripted. I tend to write, then rehearse, then rewrite after figuring out which words or phrases I stumble over or don’t like once I hear them spoken.

For “Lincoln the Politician,” the speech I gave Friday at our club contest (video), this was a particularly long process. I gave the original version of this speech in early 2012. When a few club members told me I should make it a contest speech, I originally didn’t see how that was going to work because it started out as an 8-10 minute speech and how could I possibly cut it down? In the long run, I found that cutting it down to the essentials made it stronger. There was one laugh line I really hated to lose, but it consistently made me run over time.

I’m currently working on strengthening the ending, both in wording and delivery, so the current version I’m sharing below includes changes I made a few minutes ago, as part of my preparation for the Area Contest. If you’d like to see the changes between the original and current versions, you can look at this document showing deleted text crossed out and additions underlined: LincolnRevisions.pdf

Words in bold are ones I particularly wanted to emphasize.

Original version from early 2012:

“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.”

Mrs. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and welcome guests. Those are the words President Abraham Lincoln is best known for, at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg. That was in November 1863, while the Civil War was still raging. It was a great speech about the value of freedom and the struggle to achieve it. It was also a part of a long, faltering political process.

Earlier that year, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the states that were in rebellion against the union – only the states in rebellion. If you were in a loyal union state and owned slaves, you could keep them. The bargain between North and South for the preservation of slavery was written into the Constitution Lincoln was sworn to uphold.

That changed with the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, which Lincoln made part of the Republican Party platform in his 1864 reelection campaign. By the time it became law in 1865, Lincoln was already dead – assassinated less than a week after General Lee surrendered on behalf of the Confederacy.

Lincoln said, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Yet as a politician, he often danced around the issue of what to do about it.

He had a sense of humor about his political instincts, just as he did about his physical appearance. When someone accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I was two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

For a long time, Lincoln thought about slavery in the South in something like the way we think of injustice in another country. We disapprove, but they are sovereign states and we can’t control how they govern themselves internally. But there was friction over the opening of new states in the West and whether they would be slave or free.

Lincoln wasn’t eager for conflict, but he saw it coming. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he told the Illinois Republican convention. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

That was the year he ran for U.S. Senate and had his famous debates against Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas would roll into town in a private rail car, looking every inch the incumbent in a fine blue suit. Lincoln traveled in an ordinary passenger car so he could talk to voters. He made a point of dressing in plain, everyday clothes. Douglas would bow with a flourish. Lincoln was all elbows and knees and folded like a jackknife. Douglas had a deep, authoritative voice. Lincoln spoke in a tenor, and his voice cracked when he tried to project.

Douglas promoted a doctrine of popular sovereignty, meaning the voters in each state would decide very democratically whether it should be slave or free. Lincoln wanted to confine slavery to the South and keep it out of federal territories.

Lincoln may have been an abolitionist at heart, but he spent a lot of time denying it that year. To one hostile crowd, he said, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bring about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Asked about intermarriage, he said, “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”

On the other hand, in that same series of debates, he said “the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence … may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.”

The contradiction between ideals and reality had bothered Lincoln for a long time. Years before, he had written to his friend and business partner Joshua Speed, “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ “

Lincoln lost his race for the Senate but came back two years later to win the White House in 1860. Even though he denied being an abolitionist, he was close enough to it that his election pushed the Confederate states into rebellion. Lincoln considered it his job to bring them back. When the newspaper editor Horace Greely urged him to free the slaves immediately, Lincoln wrote back:

If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.

That was August 1862. What Lincoln didn’t tell Greeley was that he had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and was just waiting for a Union victory before he announced it. Given the politics and the constitutional law of the time, he had to be able to justify it as an act of war, not as a moral act. And to have the support of people, he wanted to make it look like a move made from a position of strength, not desperation.

Yes, Lincoln was a politician, who sometimes talked out both sides of his mouth. By modern standards, we might consider him a racist because he never asserted that black people were truly equal, in terms of intelligence or abilities. What he did believe was that we all deserve an equal chance to make the best use of the gifts we have been given – a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Current version, planned for Feb. 2 area contest:

“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.”

Contest master, Toastmasters, and guests, those are the words President Abraham Lincoln is best known for, from the dedication of the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863. The Gettysburg Address was a stirring oration about freedom and the struggle to achieve it. It was also part of a long, faltering political process.

Earlier that year, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the states that were in rebellion against the union – only the states in rebellion. If you were in a loyal border state and owned slaves, you could keep them – at least for now. The bargain for the preservation of slavery was written into the Constitution Lincoln was sworn to uphold.

Of course, he changed that by pushing through the 13th Amendment, which is the drama of Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln movie. But if you read a more complete biography, like the one by David Herbert Donald, you realize Lincoln was slow to embrace abolition as a practical political goal.

“If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” Lincoln said. Yet for many years he thought about slavery in the South the way we might think of injustice in other countries. We disapprove, but they are sovereign states and we can’t control how they govern themselves internally. Lincoln hoped to confine slavery to the states where it already existed and phase it out gradually.

The problem with trying to be a moderate on this issue was that America’s expansion to the West created friction – and sometimes violence – about whether new states would be slave or free.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln told an early Republican convention. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

The U.S. Senator from Illinois, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, wanted to let the voters in each state decide, very democratically, whether to allow slavery. When Lincoln challenged Douglas, their famous debates showed the contrast between the two. Douglas would roll into town in a private rail car, looking every inch the incumbent in a fine blue suit. Lincoln dressed plainly and traveled in an ordinary passenger car so he could talk to voters. Douglas would bow with a flourish. Lincoln was all elbows and knees and folded like a jackknife. Douglas had a booming, authoritative voice. Lincoln spoke in a tenor, his voice cracking when he tried to project.

Lincoln spent a lot of time distancing himself from abolitionists that year. To one hostile crowd in Southern Illinois, he said, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bring about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” On the hot button issue of intermarriage, he said, “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”

In that same series of debates, he also said, “the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence … may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.”

He had a sense of humor about his flexibility on the issues. When someone accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I was two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

Lincoln never did make it to the Senate, but he came back to win the presidency in 1860, edging out Douglas in a messy four-way race. Though he did not call himself an abolitionist, he was close enough to it that his election pushed the Confederate states into rebellion. Lincoln considered it his job to bring them back. To maintain popular support for the war, he had to continually rebut charges that it was all about slavery. When the newspaper editor Horace Greely urged him to free the slaves immediately, Lincoln wrote a letter to the Editor:

If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.

What Lincoln didn’t tell Greely was he already had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sitting on his desk. He was just waiting for a union victory so he could announce it from a position of strength. Given the politics of the time, he had to be able to justify it as an act of war, not as a moral act.

Lincoln was a politician, who spoke quite fluently out both sides of his mouth. By modern standards, he may also have been a racist. We know he told some racist jokes. He opposed slavery because it was cruel, not necessarily because he believed black people were truly equal in terms of intelligence or abilities. He made the point that equality under the law did not mean all people were identical. Some would always be smarter, stronger, or prettier. What he did believe was that we all deserve an equal chance to make the best use of whatever gifts God has given us – a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Note: I’m practicing several versions of the final paragraph, so that I can do a longer version or a shorter version depending on whether I’ve gotten the red light. I felt I rushed through the conclusion a little too much in our club contest, so for the area contest I’ve challenged myself to make the best use of my time without running over.

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