Saturday, November 19, 2011

'My little speech'

On this day in 1863, nearly a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln sat on a wooden platform before the multitudes dressed (as Shelby Foote wrote) in "a black, full-skirted suit, a tall silk hat, and white gloves" at a cemetery in Pennsylvania's hill country. The interment of some 8,000 bodies there had barely begun. Most of the dead still rested in shallow graves in nearly every farm field or garden near Gettysburg; and under loose dirt mounds on the mangled battlegrounds where North and South had clashed only four and a half months earlier.

The stench of decomposing flesh hung in the stifling morning air when Lincoln removed his hat and rose to deliver what he later dubbed as "my little speech." Honest Abe looked a "ghastly color" as he perched his glasses on his nose, recalled John Hay, the president's secretary. But his hands were steady as he began to speak. Reconstructing the scene in his historical novel, Gore Vidal wrote that in contrast to the "deep rich cello" of the previous speaker, "Lincoln's voice was like the sound that accompanies a sudden crack of summer lightning."
Fourscore 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.

To Vidal, Lincoln "seemed to be firing each word across the battlefield" as he spoke with unusual (but likely deliberate) slowness.

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 the final resting place of 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 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 that 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 here 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.
In ten sentences, the 16th President of the United States delivered one of the greatest speeches of all time. If Hollywood could script history, Lincoln's words -- a terse but singular American poem that framed the Civil War as the crucial test of our democracy -- would have been met with rapturous applause as the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" swelled to its goosebumps-inducing climax. Reality of course is rarely cinematic. As Foote noted, Lincoln's three-minute speech was actually greeted by "delayed, scattered, and barely polite" applause by the 10,000 or so attendees. Although one Massachusetts newspaper later called it a "perfect gem," Lincoln's home state paper, the Chicago Times, opined that the “cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”

History of course rendered a different verdict -- one, I suspect, that would have surprised the oft-morose Lincoln (legend has it that even he thought the speech fell flat). Indeed, when read for irony, one passage has always leapt out for me: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," said Mr. Lincoln. He couldn't have been more wrong. Not only did "the world" ultimately note what was said, the deeper meaning of the Gettysburg Address has been imprinted forever in our national memory. The Great Emancipator never heard the Hollywood-style applause he deserved on that long ago day in 1863. But he surely hears it now.

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