The Gettysburg Address: The Tweet’s Great-Grandfather

The statue of the 16th president of the US Abraham Lincoln is seen on a cell phone as a person snaps a picture at the Lincoln Memorial on November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Today marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's historic Gettysburg Address.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
Nov. 19, 2013, 11:31 a.m.

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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