The Truth in the Pen

There is a scene in HBO’s 2008 epic miniseries, John Adams, when Adams entreats Thomas Jefferson to write a “declaration of principles,” what would become United States’ Declaration of Independence. “I have a great opinion of the elegance of your pen,” he tells Jefferson, “and none at all of my own.”

Watching that scene was the first time it occurred to me that the foundational document was, at least in part, the product of a writer, the product of a process whereby the writer not only conveyed information and meaning, but perhaps also discovered meaning — discovered truth — in the process of creating the document, choosing the right word, pursing clarity within the rails of syntax and grammar, and choosing the most meaningful structure to distill the ideas behind it.

In reading the Declaration of Independence, I realized there is a beauty and a rhythm to the words that I hadn’t noticed before, or at least hadn’t consciously noted before. Consider this passage from what is believed to be Jefferson’s original draft:

prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light & transient causes: and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. but when a long train of abuses & usurpations, begun at a distinguished period, & pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to subject them to arbitrary power, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government & to provide new guards for their future security. 

Was his insight into the nature of the governed — a group that would long tolerate evils, while they’re sufferable — a preconceived point to be added to the work, or was it discovered in the writing of the document as a structural counterpoint to the “abuses and userpations” he notes as being suffered? Either way, he thoughtfully lays an emotional touchstone that helps create the foundation for the United State’s first steps towards independence.

Jefferson’s draft has a voice and tenor that withstood the 86 congressional edits made, or was perhaps even benefitted by it. It was important to the founding fathers that Jefferson was not the only creator of the document, that it was a document of the congress, of the people. But perhaps members of the congress, too, were swayed by the writing of the work so that, while they surely combed through every word, fact, and opinion, they also didn’t wish to upset its integrity. Perhaps.

The Declaration of Independence is a crucial document, but it has also been referred to as a pronouncement, a statement, and, of course, it’s a declaration. To a certain degree, it was intended as an oral work, meant to stir the hearts of the people in support of independence and prepare them for additional battles, and it was meant to be distributed and read allowed to audiences. Washington reportedly had the declaration read to his troops on July 9th in New York city, while thousands of British troops were on the ready nearby in the harbor. To the extent it can be likened to a speech, I have been compelled to look at more political speeches where, perhaps, the process of writing them, and possibly even tuning them for the ears as well as the eyes, has led to moments of mellifluous beauty, truth, and creative discovery.

Abraham Lincoln’s The Gettysburg Address

Delivered November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

One of the first speeches that came to mind was, unsurprisingly, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. What makes this speech — ten short sentences — one of the most venerated oratory works in the history of the U.S.? Its place in history, surely, but also an eloquence and structure so compelling, it helped to carve a path forward for the Union army at the time. The speech thoughtfully employs contrast, as I’ve noticed so many speeches do, to inspire its people to take heart and inspiration from loss.

For loss and even a kind of helplessness is suggested early in the speech. Though Lincoln and kindred citizens have gathered to dedicate a portion of the Gettysburg battlefield to those who have fought or fallen there, Lincoln notes that their power is but poor to do so. “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

But he soon notes the power of the living is still impactful. It lies in never forgetting, and it lies in dedicating themselves “to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Moreover, their power is no less than that of the founding fathers, mentioned in the beginning of the speech, in dedicating themselves to the cause of Liberty and equality fought for 87 years ago. They may fight for “a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln writes not only a carefully structured, cohesive speech, he includes beautifully crafted sentences. Consider, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion….” That one sentence inspires a faithful devotion that, still, can never compare to the full measure of those who lost their lives.

I’m guessing that it’s rare that so much is said is such a few words, and Lincoln was of course wrong when he suggested “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” for his words have taken on a life of their own.

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.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

—Abraham Lincoln

Robert F. Kennedy’s Day of Affirmation Address

Delivered June 6, 1966, University of Capetown, Capetown, South Africa,

In his speech to the students at University of Capetown, in honor of its Day of Affirmation, a celebration of liberty, he draws a picture of the world not as we see it in our day-to-day reality, but as he saw it from the air as he flew to Africa, flying over hills, oceans, and nations.

In a few hours, the plane that brought me to this country crossed over oceans and countries which have been a crucible of human history. In minutes we traced migrations of men over thousands of years; seconds, the briefest glimpse, and we passed battlefields on which millions of men once struggled and died. We could see no national boundaries, no vast gulfs or high walls dividing people from people; only nature and the works of man — homes and factories and farms — everywhere reflecting man’s common effort to enrich his life. Everywhere new technology and communications bring men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably become the concerns of all. And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of differences which is at the root of injustice and hate and war. Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ends at river’s shore, his common humanity is enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town or his views and the color of his skin.

It is your job, the task of the young people in this world to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.

With a pen, he portrays a point of view that is not only geographically accurate, but politically poignant, as students all over the world joined the fight for the civil rights movement. And it’s a viewpoint that’s equally germane today, as technology, travel, and a global economy have helped to blur the boundaries between nations. Which is not to see they have dissolved geopolitical distinctions. We’re seeing some countries shrink back from international ties in a reaction to concerns over factors such as the refugee crisis and the possible pitfalls of the global economy. Brexit, largely supported by older voters, and the U.S.’s own frightening withdrawal from The Paris Agreement, are examples of this.

But, at least in terms of political movements, we’re again seeing international denizens band together, and nowhere is this more evident than in younger generations. Similar to the civil rights movements, many in the younger generations are banding behind progressive issues. It is the young who are among those leading the charge against gun violence and weak gun laws. It is the young who are taking the threat of climate change into their own hands. They are joining in the voices of the #MeToo movement, and they wield social media expertise. And it is the young who, according to research, can make a difference in the elections if they come out to vote. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, almost 60 percent of Millennials identify or lean Democrat, while a little over a third identify or lean Republican. This doesn’t necessarily signify a Blue Wave, but it speaks to the potential sway of this group.

Perhaps more than any other speech included here, Kennedy makes it apparent that, for good or bad, our reality is a created one. The U.S.’s founding fathers, such as Jefferson, created the reality of a land founded on principles of equality, freedom, and liberty. It is also our definition of and dependence on borders that can lead to war.

It is in the young’s ability to imagine a better world that Kennedy finds hope. It is not just their political tenacity that inspires him, but their belief that change is possible. And it is in writing about this belief that Kennedy paints a powerful contrast between the promise of passionate idealism and vision and more calculated strategies void of values. Kennedy counted himself among the younger population in believing it’s the forces of human faith, heart, and belief that are “ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals.”

The second danger is that of expediency: of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course, if we must act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs — that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems. It is not realistic…to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief — forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals. Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.

Perhaps, more than anything, Kennedy shows that it is the young’s ability to imagine a future different than our own, and the young’s penchant for unifying behind a cause — whether in schools, college campuses, or on the streets — that gives us all hope.

I know at times you must feel very alone with your problems and with your difficulties. But I want to say how I — impressed I am with the stand — with what you stand for and for the effort that you are making; and I say this not just for myself, but men and women all over the world. And I hope you will often take heart from the knowledge that you are joined with your fellow young people in every land, they struggling with their problems and you with yours, but all joined in a common purpose.… You’re determined to build a better future.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Left-Handed Commencement Address

Delivered May 22, 1983, Mills College, Oakland, California

Like an artist using light and shadows to shine light on salient features, Ursula K. Le Guin creates a kind of chiaroscuro in her 1983 Mills College speech, “A Left-Handed Commencement Address,” using light and darkness to explore planes of reality.

Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.

What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.

As she examines the politics of gender and power hierarchy, she turns the dichotomy of light and darkness upside down, and in doing so, encourages women and men to not only inhabit the dark, but to inhabit their true selves, to discover their connection to each other, and their humanity. 

I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is.

Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

Darkness, in the world she depicts, is where pain and injustice reside, but it is also a place of knowing and understanding, where seeds of hope may flourish.

Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire Campaign Speech for Hilary Clinton

Delivered October 13, 2016, Rally in Manchester, New Hampshire

I was unsure whether or not to include Michelle Obama’s speech because her incredibly powerful, poignant 2016 New Hampshire campaign speech for Hilary Clinton seems to come not from the written word, but straight from her heart, directly from a place of authenticity. In fact, I suspect her pen was trying to keep up with her and the truth she so clearly needed to tell as this speech was written. On the news regarding Trump’s hurtful treatment of women, she says:

And I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. So while I’d love nothing more than to pretend like this isn’t happening, and to come out here and do my normal campaign speech, it would be dishonest and disingenuous of me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream.

But I include her speech because it’s told so eloquently, and structured so thoughtfully, that her emphasis on the significance of human dignity and respect is not only punctuated throughout, it also unfolds as she tells us story after story, inviting us to identify with women and “that sick, sinking feeling” they get when they’re demeaned in public, or someone at work “stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.” Inviting us to identify with all parents trying to protect their kids from the news and a discourse that devalues women, and provides harmful role models for all children. And at another level, inviting us to be a part of history and the American story that recognizes the value of all of its people.

So we cannot afford to be tired or turned off. And we cannot afford to stay home on election day. Because on November the 8th, we have the power to show our children that America’s greatness comes from recognizing the innate dignity and worth of all our people. On November the 8th, we can show our children that this country is big enough to have a place for us all — men and women, folks of every background and walk of life — and that each of us is a precious part of this great American story, and we are always stronger together.

As with most of the political speeches here, she uses contrast to shed light on her vision. Contrast between the celebration of the International Day of the Girl to the demeaning comments a presidential candidate made about women, contrast between hope, as an ideal, and hatred and fear as a tool. In clearly expressing her own truth, she connects her listeners to one that’s universal. And the vision that she underscores — where there is a place for people of every gender and background — is an American story that, at its heart, simultaneously is, and could be, our own.