Politicians today throw around a lot of words.
It is good, old-fashioned American fun to mock endless speeches by self-important, long-winded politicians. Few of their words are remembered. And still fewer words go so deep as to touch the chords of American identity and capture the vision of the Founding Fathers.
That is why the 272 words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg 150 years ago on Tuesday November 19, 1863 stand as one of the greatest speeches in American politics, if not the greatest.
They are words countless millions of Americans have spoken over these last 150 years. The speech begins, “Four score and seven years ago” and many among us can finish the sentence from memory: “…our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal."
Time magazine recently ranked it among the top ten greatest of all time along with Socrates’ Apology, President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream,” speech.
Due to the speech’s brevity and simplicity newspapers around the nation reprinted the president’s ever word. The speech went “viral” to use an example pulled from today’s world.
Garry Wills, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” makes the case that on that cold November day Lincoln gave new life to the idea of ‘One Nation Under God.’ The promise of freedom and equality for all was in the speech and became from that day on the foundation of U.S. citizenship and the American government.
Consider these immortal words, calling us to be united once more: “that the nation, 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.”
Wills notes that the president was the first to speak of the American Revolution as a brave act of national unity more so than a break with British rule. In that spirit he made no mention of “union” or “confederate” states but only the “nation.”
President Lincoln did all of this in two minutes, speaking only those 272 words. And he was the second speaker.
The keynote speaker that day was Edward Everett, secretary of state of Massachusetts and a former U.S. Senator who had been president of Harvard University.
Everett spoke for two hours and his speech was more than 13,000 words long. The famous speaker later wrote to the President that “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.” Lincoln wrote back: “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”
President Lincoln’s brevity did disappoint some who had come expecting one of his famed, lengthy speeches. Rain fell as the crowd waited to hear the president, leaving them standing on muddy ground surrounding a small speaker’s platform.
They clearly had been waiting for him to say more. The Chicago Times’ story on the speech described the President’s words as “silly, flat and dish watery remarks.” The London Times wrote: “Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”
But the speech has “triumphed over time, condemnation, obscurity, parody and comparison,” Professor Richard Katula of Northeastern University wrote in 1999 in judging the speech to be the best of American political rhetoric.
And 150 years later it is possible to say that the brevity of the speech is key to its staying power. Every word the president spoke was necessary.
Much of the speech’s power comes from so much being left to the power of the listeners’ own patriotic imagination, sentiment and grief.
It was only 4 months earlier as many as 51,000 soldiers died on that battlefield. The town of Gettysburg had become a makeshift burial ground and Andrew Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania, had raised money to create a national cemetery.
Lincoln travelled there by train the day before for the dedication of the cemetery with his secretary of state, William Seward; his secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay; the Congressional Chaplain Rev. Thomas Stockton, a bodyguard and his free black aide and valet, William Johnson.
On the morning of the ceremony he threw out a whole section of the speech he was working on. Before the ceremony began he went to Seminary Ridge to personally look over the scarred battlefield.
Gettysburg had been a critical victory for Union forces, ending the movement of Robert E. Lee’s confederate forces towards the north. There is no record of Lincoln’s thoughts as he faced the blood soaked ground.
But when President Lincoln stood to speak that afternoon he was a humbled man and offered words of inspiration at a time when the nation was wounded and divided.
He delivered hope of the sort deeply needed through the turbulence of the years of American history that followed and even today when partisan politics perpetually put the government in gridlock.
One young person who heard the speech later wrote: “On coming away I said to a classmate, ‘Well, Mr. Lincoln’s speech was simple, appropriate, and right to the point, but I don’t think there was anything remarkable about it.’”
He was shortsighted and wrong.
And now 150 years later the power of the words and the inspiration they continue to provide still stand tall, above so many words spoken since, providing proof that there was something remarkable, something stirring about this speech. Read the words for yourself here again and savor their power:
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. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. 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 hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.
It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us —that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, 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.