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Tech

The Gettysburg Address: The Tweet’s Great-Grandfather

(AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Laura Ryan
November 19, 2013

The 272 words President Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg 150 years ago Tuesday could be considered the great-grandfather of the tweet.

Lincoln crafted his speech with what was then a new technology—the telegraph—in mind. Within 48 hours, the address was printed on the front pages of newspapers in California, achieving his desired effect.

"Lincoln was a master political strategist. He truly understood what it took to get the message out to the people," Peter Schnall, director and producer of the PBS documentary Lincoln@Gettysburg, told Wired.

 

"He knew the speech would be telegraphed across the nation; within 48 hours every newspaper as far as California had printed the speech straight on the front page, which is exactly what he was aiming for. He was using the media of communication in different ways than a president had ever done before."

The Gettysburg Address was a conscious break with traditional forms of American oratory. Edward Everett, the keynote speaker at Gettysburg, spoke for two hours. Lincoln spoke for seven minutes.

Lincoln used ruthless precision while writing the speech to make its meaning clear and authoritative, Gary Wills explains in The Atlantic. It is the modern-day equivalent of turning an essay into a tweet.

Without precedent to guide him, Lincoln embraced the new technology, and deployed it adroitly to rally Union commanders on the front lines in (almost) real-time and communicate his vision to the American public.

"Abraham Lincoln developed the modern model of electronic leadership out of necessity, without text or tutor in the midst of a national calamity," wrote Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a historian, who authored the book Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails. "To suggest that Lincoln's telegrams are somehow 'lessons' to be followed in our use of emails would be to demean them, the reason they exist in the first place, and their author. However, I have found that my experience reading Abraham Lincoln's t-mails has made me more thoughtful in my use of emails."

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