"Fourscore 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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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, The Gettysburg Address, Gettysburg, PA, November 19, 1863For a speech of less than 300 words, the Gettysburg Address--delivered 150 years ago today, at the dedication ceremonies for the Gettysburg National Cemetery--has inspired countless words of reverence, interpretation and myth. In this way, it serves as an unintentional microcosm of the life of President Abraham Lincoln himself.
Let’s start with how it was given. From the great majority of actors who have recited the lines on the big and small screen, not to mention narrators of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, where the address figures prominently, you might expect that the 16th President read his lines to the 9,000 in attendance in a deep, bass voice. But the reality was closer to the reedy, high-pitched tones used by Sam Waterston in the 1980s TV miniseries Lincoln or Daniel Day Lewis in the recent Steven Spielberg film of the same name.I wrote most of this post on a train down to DC. Which brings to the surface another question: How much of his most famous speech did Lincoln write on the train from Washington to Gettysburg? A legend holds that the President scribbled his notes on the back of an envelope on the way to the small farming community convulsed by war. But given the source of the legend, the President’s work habits, and the nature of Presidential travel at the time, this spontaneous outburst of genius seems unlikely:
* A dubious source. The idea that Lincoln wrote the speech quickly on the train came not from a biography, let alone a contemporary source, but from a short story written by a woman 40 years after the event. As Kent Gramm, a historian who has written about the battle and the event, described it in a Brown Bag Lunch I heard at Chautauqua Institution this past summer, Mary Richmond Shipman Andrews’ “The Perfect Tribute” gave the public a highly sentimental tale with not much resemblance to truth but a great deal to offer those who wanted simply a Great Conciliator who could bind the warring sections together, not a Great Emancipator whose destruction of America made him the most hated man on the continent to a majority below the Mason-Dixon Line. She also gave oxygen to the idea that the greatness of the speech was not recognized by Lincoln’s audience. (The one person who does believe it to be one of the greatest speeches he has ever heard is a blind, mortally wounded Confederate captain unaware that the kindly, Christ-like man comforting him is the fellow who delivered it.)
* The President’s work habits. As a lawyer, Lincoln was in the habit of thoroughly preparing his cases. If he had been in the mood to speak spontaneously or with minimum aforethought, he could have done so on July 4, 1863, when he spoke very briefly to a group of well-wishers after hearing the news of the battle. He even connected the battle to the Declaration of Independence. But though the idea was present, the cadences of his victory appearance read less like the somber yet soaring political prose poem we know than like journalist Oliver Jensen’s parody of how it might sound if rendered by Dwight D. Eisenhower. (“How long ago is it?—eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’ [Cheers.] That was the birthday of the United States of America.”—Lincoln. “I haven’t checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual.”—Jensen’s Ike.) Lincoln was right to believe that this was a “great theme” that he would need more time to prepare.
* Contemporary Presidential travel. Every manuscript version we have of the address in the President’s own hand was steady. It is unlikely that this could have been produced on a train which, though more comfortable than a stagecoach, was still a rather bumpy ride. It is also unlikely that Lincoln could have even carved out enough time to structure this unbelievably well-crafted speech, with aides vying for his attention; at best, he could only have tightened certain words and phrases.
A number of relatively recent commentators have analyzed Lincoln’s powerful rhetorical strategies. Historian James M McPherson, for instance, in an essay “How Lincoln Won the War Through Metaphors” in his fine collection, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, has discussed the cycles of birth, death and rebirth used so effectively throughout. Garry Wills, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, stresses the Unionist rhetoric of Daniel Webster, transcendentalism, and the imagery of the rural cemetery movement. In an op-ed piece in Monday’s New York Times, Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, points to the short Anglo-Saxon words and interlocking sentences that tie Lincoln’s points together.
But historian and Lincoln Studies Center co-director Douglas Wilson, in a lecture aired on C-Span this past weekend, makes two observations that I think are especially noteworthy. First, the occasion was overwhelmingly somber. Many in the audience had lost loved ones in the battle only four months before. These sons, brothers and husbands would now be buried in the new cemetery Lincoln was here to dedicate, and inevitably their sounds of crying could be heard throughout his speech and that of the day’s chief speaker, Edward Everett. For them, the most important part of Lincoln’s address was his urging that the Union fallen “shall not have died in vain.”
Second, even Lincoln’s first sentence, Wilson noted, was important—a longtime lawyer’s trick of establishing something that could be agreed upon before proceeding to points that otherwise might not have been. What everyone could agree on was that the Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal.”
What Lincoln was after was a “new birth of freedom,” a kind larger and more inclusive than the one originally “brought forth,” a second republic to which he had committed the nation with the Emancipation Proclamation at the start of the year, an idea that remained hugely controversial not only to the South but even much of the North with no appetite for abolitionism . That earlier document had been highly legalistic. In contrast, this one vibrates with somber passion, a speech that, as Wills noted, not only decontaminated a field that only recently had constituted a public-health emergency but also a political order that had for too long permitted a great evil at its heart.