Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s greatest orators and a writer and speaker who influenced our penchant for simple language and short, punchy text, probably never finished working on his speeches, introducing ad libs from the podium as he clutched emended, redacted, and interwoven drafts in his hands or laid them on small tables at his side.
A recent piece about his approach to speechwriting on NPR is worth a listen today, President’s Day in the United States.
What is the authoritative version of Lincoln’s speeches? It’s hard to cobble together. Getting to a definitive version of any orator’s words prior to recordable media is difficult.
Yet maybe this is just as it should be, for many of the words Lincoln spoke are timeless, open to reinterpretation given the circumstances of the age, even today. How they resonate with each ear is a function of the times.
And perhaps that’s the lesson — there is no final version of a great speaker’s words, only the version you hear on the day you hear it and find the words moving or inspiring. Maybe today, these words will strike you as poignant in a way their speaker could never have anticipated, yet understood profoundly:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Happy President’s Day.