Smithsonian Magazine has just published a fascinating article about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on New Year’s Day, 1863, and freed the slaves in states that had seceded from the US.
It’s a fascinating look into the mind of Abraham Lincoln, surely one of the greatest presidential writers. And here’s what’s so interesting: This historic document is…dull.
Harold Holzer discussed Lincoln’s “leaden language” in his book Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. Holder says he found only one memorable line in the entire document:
“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free….”
The Smithsonian Magazine article caught my eye for two reasons. I’ve been interested in the Emancipation Proclamation for a long time – in fact I wrote a research paper about it when I was a freshman in college.
I’m also interested in the writing processes used by famous people. Lincoln must have known that he was writing one of the most important proclamations in American history. Why would he want to be remembered for a boring piece of writing?
To put it more simply: Why didn’t he work harder to make it better?
The surprising answer is that Lincoln did work harder to make it better, according to Holzer. Why was the result such a dry document? Holzer believes Lincoln was perfecting the legal tone.
When I wrote my long-ago research paper, I discovered that the Emancipation Proclamation was a political document, not a humanitarian one. Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves in the seceded states was purely symbolic, since none of those slaveholders considered themselves under federal rule.
The Emancipation Proclamation (which did go into effect after the Civil War) strengthened Lincoln’s stature with the slavery-hating North and with America’s important ally, Queen Victoria of England, who also hated slavery. And it encouraged borderline states to stay loyal to the Union, since the Emancipation didn’t free their slaves.
According to Holzer, the legalistic tone of the Emancipation Proclamation had two purposes: Heading off a legal challenge, and preventing a revolt from the pro-slavery forces in the United States.
Now let’s shift our vision to New Year’s Day 2013. Very likely you’ve resolved to work on your writing skills this year. What can you learn from Lincoln and his famous Proclamation?
My answer: Successful writers think first about their purpose and their audience. Lincoln made word choices that strengthened his political position. Extravagant praise for freedom and justice would have outraged his enemies – the people who wanted to keep slavery in place.
There are writing “experts” out there who would urge you to start at the beginning and work your way through parts of speech, sentence diagramming, and other grammatical issues. Don’t believe them. Yes, you need to know Standard English usage.
But what’s most important is to know how to select the words and ideas that will convey your message to your audience. Stay focused on those goals, and you’ll make rapid progress.