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Time and Timelessness: Lincoln at Gettysburg

April 20, 2022


It was one of those grainy pictures that just looks old. 

There he was. Surrounded by scores of blurred women’s heads donning bonnets and day caps. Flanked by visages of men sporting regent mustaches, mutton chop sideburns, and stovepipe hats. Yes, there he was, but you wouldn’t be expected to know it. After all, he, for whom the stovepipe hat was the sine qua non, remained uncharacteristically bareheaded. With hair thrashed by wind, eyes firmly squinted, and head cocked rightward, you really have to squint to see if it is really him. And it is. Abraham Lincoln.

Nearly five months prior to this captured image (from July 1 to July 3, 1863), Union soldiers fought Confederates in a battle that cost over fifty thousand lives. To this very day, the Battle of Gettysburg is considered the largest battle ever fought in the Western hemisphere. Now, on November 19, with the weather turning and the war shifting to other climes, President Abraham Lincoln stood prepared to dedicate this hallowed ground to become the first national military cemetery.

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Lincoln, however, was the last speaker to be invited. Poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant were approached to compose and recite a poem for the occasion, but both demurred. Edward Everett, a famed orator and acolyte of venerated politician and statesman Daniel Webster, was asked to be the keynote speaker. Before a gathered crowd of fifteen thousand, Everett offered his most inspired work . . . for over two straight hours. 

When the aged speaker wearily took his seat, it was up to Lincoln to provide wrap-up sentiments to the weary crowd. And so, in a mere 272 words, Lincoln offered up what is arguably the most eloquent dedication penned in the modern English language.

Four score 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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not 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.

When the address was finished, the assembled and huddled mass of thousands shuffled back to their own lives, their own concerns. In the next day’s newspapers, Lincoln’s words were characterized as “silly remarks” and “dishwatery utterances” by the usual suspects who didn’t like the wartime president. But a few perceptive minds took notice. The Chicago Tribune observed, “Half a century hence, to have lived in this age will be fame. To have served it as well as Lincoln, will be immortality.” Massachusetts’ Springfield Republican commended Everett’s words, but added that “the rhetorical honors of the occasion were won by President Lincoln. His little speech is a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.” Everett himself penned a magnanimous note to the president saying, “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.” 

What was it that made Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address so extraordinary? 

Brevity. Sometimes wisdom is spoken even by fools. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the fusty, doddering Polonius rightly insists that “brevity is the soul of wit.” More often than not, foregoing interminable waxing and waning and simply getting to the point cannot only be memorable, it can be electrifying. But being succinct is hard work. Once when writing a particularly long letter, Blaise Pascal puckishly apologized, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln mastered brevity.

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Clarity. It matters little how beautiful your message is if it is not understood. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed that “one should use common words to say uncommon things.” And master of clarity George Orwell confessed, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was profoundly clear.

Humility. Ralph Waldo Emerson could almost serve as Lincoln’s biographer when he said, “A great man is always willing to be little. . . . When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has gained facts; learned his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of his conceit; has got moderation and real skill.” At Gettysburg, the president was an afterthought: he was the last to talk and spoke for merely a few minutes. As biographer Ronald White noted, “Lincoln did not use one first-person singular pronoun in his entire address. It was as if Lincoln disappeared so that transcendent truths could appear.” Lincoln at Gettysburg embodied humility.

Substance. At some point, style takes a backseat to substance. At a battlefield soiled with the blood of those defending Liberty and Union, Lincoln hearkened back to the past just as he peered into the future. He honored the lives of the dead and challenged the comforts of the living. In several hundred words, Lincoln simultaneously paid deference to the historical and the transcendent. The Gettysburg Address was rich with substance.

To be sure, to look once again upon Lincoln’s grainy image at Gettysburg seems impossibly removed from our fast-paced modern lives. And I’ve come to discover that, as Ronald White tells it, when the photographer snapped the windswept Lincoln at Gettysburg, “He concluded his address before the photographer could begin.” The Gettysburg Address was that short. And yet, it was infinitely consequential. Time, as we all discover, is fleeting. But well-considered words and deeds that strive to be righteous can endure. The truth and its expositors can be timeless.