The flow, the alliteration, the pace, the themes, the aesthetic and emotional qualities are the things that keep speechwriters up at night. It is a race to find who will be the next to inspire us, and articulate the lessons of a generation.
Yet President Abraham Lincoln, a man who had more on his mind than oration, outspeaks them all. While the old tale of Lincoln writing up his famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, on a back of an envelope during the train ride to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is probably false, it is endearing and captures the rush Lincoln felt in writing it. He did not have much time to write the address, as he after all was busy running a nation and winning the American Civil War. At a Tuesday cabinet meeting, Lincoln announced his intention to travel to Gettysburg, the site of the greatest battle ever on American soil. He left for the event on Wednesday. On The following day, Thursday, 19 November, 1863 was the consecration ceremony for some new cemetery grounds near the great battlefield.
As he told the cabinet assembly of his plans, he asked those present to join him, but it was a busy time of the year. All the Federal departments had to submit reports to Congress near the end of the year, and so the cabinet was rushing to make sure the reports were on time. Lincoln was also busy, but respect for and visiting with the Union Army was always high on his list of priorities, so he made time for the visit. So did his Secretary of State, Postmaster-General and Secretary of the Interior.
The trip was about four hours long. It's not clear if the President worked on the speech he was to give during that period. One of his personal aides, who could probably be trusted, claimed that he shared humorous anecdotes (his favorite pastime) and simply relaxed. One person remembered him laboring over a document, and using the top of his famous stovepipe hat as a desk. There are some sources to corroborate the claim that he drafted the speech on an envelope.
He worked on the speech that night, and as the small town of Gettysburg swelled to several times its normal size with pilgrims who wished to pay respect to the dead, he was interrupted a couple of times by a crowd that gathered outside his room. Knowing that the crowd wanted to hear a speech, he told them, 'I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.'
He finished the speech at around 11:00 PM and sought out his friend, Secretary of State Seward, before going to sleep.
A man named Edward Everett gave the keynote speech – a recounting of the terrible battle. It was quite a long battle, so he could be forgiven for being a bit wordy, but it took him two full hours. Lincoln supposedly got a bit restless sitting there, listening to him. When Everett concluded, Lincoln got up and congratulated him. The audience quieted as Lincoln approached the podium and put on his spectacles.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon 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.
1863 minus 87 equals 1776. The famous first words of his address were his way of invoking the famous year when America became a nation without actually coming out and saying it. He may have also wanted to keep the audience on its toes and force them to do a bit of subtraction in their heads.
Lincoln opened his speech by talking about the spirit and birth of the nation for a reason. At the time, he believed that the founding generation had tilled the ‘field of glory’ and that it was merely the responsibility of all succeeding generations to not screw up what these men managed pulled together with their raw determination and great sacrifice. In the second sentence, he moves towards his main point.
Lincoln saw the war in a broader sense than it is generally seen today. Some historians question if the Civil War was a war about slavery or, looking at the bigger picture, sectional difference. Lincoln saw an even bigger picture – that of self-government and democracy… whether a minority can pull out of a government whenever it is convenient for them to do so or not. The fathers of the nation set up what is often called the great American experiment. It was, as Lincoln saw it, the role of this generation to make sure that the experiment did not fail.
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.
Lincoln had seen the horrors of this war on several occasions, and the suffering he saw troubled him greatly. He was a man of great compassion and understanding – this we know from other people’s descriptions. President Lincoln surely would never allowed the death of so many unless he truly believed it was necessary. He wished to honor their sacrifice not only by burying them, but by giving meaning to their deaths.
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…
The best way to honour the dead, Lincoln believed, was to finish the job they fought so bravely for. They, in dying, inspired the living to protect self-government and in turn, honour them and their cause. He also, with the phrase ‘last full measure of devotion’ shows that these men can not have died for nothing. They were entirely devoted to the cause of freedom and self-government.
Lincoln was, incidentally, way off in predicting that the world wouldn’t remember his speech. It is today widely considered one of the greatest American orations ever.
…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.
Lincoln summed it up with one of his most famous phrases to describe self-government ('government of the people…'). He had always believed that this idea was at the centre of the conflict. He told an aide quite a while before this speech that 'the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.'
Brevity is Wit
The audience, having just stood through a two hour speech, could be forgiven for being confused at the conclusion of this two minute speech. Lincoln turned around and sat back down again before the crowd comprehended what had happened. They were silent. Lincoln turned to a friend and told him 'That speech won’t scour! It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.'
Applause came. Little did those present know that these 273 words1 explained the high ideals of the conflict so easily that they would become immortal. Edward Everett wrote him a letter, telling him, 'I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central theme of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.'
Quite possibly, his brevity may be explained by his not feeling well. According to some sources, President Lincoln was suffering from a mild case of smallpox around the time he got his speech. Long speeches had been known to kill American Presidents, and perhaps Lincoln knew the advantage of keeping it short and sweet.