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‘A Few Appropriate Remarks’

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why was Lincoln’s prophecy that ‘the world will little note nor long remember what we say here’ so spectacularly wrong?

At 272 words, it is not the shortest major speech in American history (George Washington’s second inaugural was only 135 words long). But it is surely the best.

The Gettysburg Address was delivered 150 years ago on the afternoon of November 19, 1863. That was four and a half months after the greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere had resulted in 50,000 casualties and almost 8,000 dead on both sides. The bodies, hastily buried in a brutally hot July, had been undergoing reburial in the past month in the new cemetery Lincoln was dedicating.

It was a typical November day in the Northeast — cold, dank, and gray. The ceremonies had started with a parade at about 9:30 a.m., followed by music and a prayer. Lincoln’s was not the main speech of the day, indeed, he had been asked only to make “a few appropriate remarks.”

Many people were caught by surprise by the speech’s brevity, but many also immediately sensed that it was immortal.

Edward Everett was the main speaker. The former governor of Massachusetts, minister to Great Britain, and secretary of State was perhaps the country’s best-known orator in an age when oratory was still considered a major form of theater.

He spoke for two hours — 13,607 words — in a speech filled with classical allusions and references to battles and civil wars past. Its flavor can be sensed from its opening sentence:

Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

When Everett finally finished, and following a hymn, Lincoln then spoke for two minutes. His remarks were followed by a dirge and a benediction. Finally Lincoln, who felt terrible — he was later diagnosed to be suffering from a mild case of smallpox — could get on his train and return to Washington.

Lincoln’s was not the main speech of the day.

Many people were caught by surprise by the speech’s brevity, but many also immediately sensed that it was immortal. Everett wrote to Lincoln, “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.” He asked for a copy of the speech, which Lincoln wrote out and sent him. It is now in the Illinois State Historical Library.

Lincoln also gave handwritten copies to his secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, both now at the Library of Congress. George Bancroft, the great historian, received a copy too, which can be found at the Cornell University Library.

The best-known copy, sent to Alexander Bliss for use in a book called Autograph Leaves of Our Country's Authors, was bought in 1949 for $54,000, then the highest price ever paid for a document at public auction. The buyer, Oscar Cintas, the Cuban ambassador to the United States, left it in his will to the American people and it now hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House.

Were another autograph copy ever to turn up, its value would be astronomical.

Why does the Gettysburg Address so resonate with the American people? Why did generations of schoolchildren commit it to memory? Why was Lincoln’s prophecy that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here” so spectacularly wrong?

Why does the Gettysburg Address so resonate with the American people?

The answer is that a great speech distills the essence of its subject, allowing us to grasp that subject’s fundamental significance in a few phrases. These phrases then echo down through time. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” for example, from Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address; or “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy ...” from his speech asking for a declaration of war after Pearl Harbor.

But while Roosevelt’s great words recall the Depression and World War II, Lincoln’s words sum up America itself. He took the greatest crisis this country has ever faced and its greatest war, and boiled them down into the very essence of what that war was about and, more, what America is all about.

So when we read the Gettysburg Address today, it remains a mirror, showing us what we are and what we aspire to be, which is, again in Lincoln’s words, “The last, best hope of earth.”

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “Obama, Johnson, and Congress,” “How Bureaucrats Captured Government,” and “The Uses of Scandal.” He discusses the power of rhetoric in “Churchill and the Power of Words,” while Pete Peterson continues a similar conversation in “Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and the Science of the Jeremiad.” Amy and Leon Kass recall one of Lincoln’s July 4 speeches in the second feature of their four-part series, “America's Birthday: The True Meaning of July 4 (Part 2).” Kass and Walter Berns  analyze Steven Spielberg’s recent film in “Lincoln.”

Photo by: Todd Taulman / Shutterstock

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