Today’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address offers more than an opportunity to memorialize an extraordinary speech. It provides a model and a mirror for writing and speechmaking today.
“It’s only words.” This phrase captures what many feel about writing today. Our casual, rapid-fire communiques are tossed off at the push of a “send” button.
Within days of the battle of Gettysburg, plans were put in place to establish and dedicate the first national military cemetery. Gettysburg, Pa., civic leader David Wills invited Edward Everett, former president of Harvard and the nation’s leading orator, to offer the main address. Later, Wills invited Lincoln to offer “a few appropriate remarks.” Definitely second fiddle.
In February 1861, as Lincoln delivered speeches during his inaugural train trip from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, Everett — reading newspaper reports — had confided to his diary, “These speeches thus far have been of the most ordinary kind, destitute of everything, not merely of felicity and grace, but of common pertinence.”
To their mutual surprise, Lincoln and Everett had an appointment with history at Gettysburg.
The story of the composition of the address was hijacked more than a century ago by a sentimental novelist who spun the tale that Lincoln wrote his speech on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg.
No. We don’t know for certain when he wrote the speech, but we do know Lincoln continued to edit his address in the upstairs bedroom in Wills’ home, where he stayed the night before the dedication ceremony. He understood there is no such thing as good writing; there is only good rewriting.
On Nov. 19, 1863, Everett stepped forward and began to speak. He went on, and on, for two hours and eight minutes. The crowd grew restless.
Lincoln rose, adjusted his spectacles, and began: “Four score and seven years ago.” The first two words rhyme, setting in motion a symphony of sounds. The biblical ring of his opening was rooted in lines from Psalm 90. Lincoln never mentioned the Bible, but the whole of his speech was suffused with both biblical content and cadence.
He first placed the dedication of the battlefield in the larger context of American history. In appealing to “our fathers,” Lincoln invoked a common heritage. The trajectory of that sentence underscored the American ideal that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln at Gettysburg asserted that the meaning of the Civil War was about both liberty and union.
After the long introductory line, with quick strokes Lincoln recapitulated that meaning of the war. Unlike Everett, he spent none of his words on the details of the battle. His purpose was rather to transfigure the Pennsylvania cemetery dedication to address its larger meaning. He mentioned the battlefield briefly, but he used the word “nation” five times. The Civil War became for Lincoln a “testing” of whether the American experiment could “endure.”
When Lincoln declared, “But, in a larger sense,” he signaled he was expanding the parameters of his address. But before he lifted his audience’s eyes from the battlefield, Lincoln told them what they could not do: “We cannot dedicate; we cannot consecrate; we cannot hallow.”
Lincoln’s use of the negative was a pivot point, emphasizing by contrast what each person in the audience could do.
In his final three sentences Lincoln pointed away from words to deeds. He contrasted “what we say here” with “what they did here.”
In this closing paragraph, he continued his use of repetition: “To be dedicated; to be here dedicated.” And: “We take increased devotion”; “the last full measure of devotion.”
Lincoln, who always chose his words carefully, here selected words that conjured up the call to religious commitment he heard regularly in the preaching at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.
At this point in his delivery, Lincoln made the only addition to the text he had written. He interjected “under God.” Unlike words added extemporaneously in earlier speeches, which he often edited out before he allowed a speech to be published, Lincoln included “under God” in subsequent copies of the address.
Those words pointed toward the next phrase — “a new birth of freedom” — with its layered political and religious meanings. Politically speaking, at Gettysburg he was no longer defending an old Union but proclaiming a new one.
Lincoln, who had spoken for less than three minutes, concluded: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
Everett delivered this review the next day: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
So what should writers and speechmakers see in the mirror 150 years later?
Readers of the essay question in the SAT exam lamented recently that as today’s high school students struggle to write comprehensible English, they try to impress by resorting to big words.
Let Lincoln be their guide. He chose his words carefully. In his 272 words (depending on the version cited), 204 were sturdy one-syllable words, the kind he so appreciated in the Bible and in Shakespeare.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, as organizers in New York sought a politician or a poet who could give voice to their deepest feelings, in the end the audience recited the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s careful choices speak across time.
As you read the Gettysburg Address today, read it slowly, for he spoke it slowly. Take time to appreciate the power of words. Words mattered to Abraham Lincoln. They ought to matter to us.
Ronald C. White Jr., a fellow at the Huntington Library and a visiting professor of history at UCLA, is the author of “A. Lincoln: A Biography.” He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.