- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Americas
Spinning President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
The wooden speaker's platform at the new Gettysburg cemetery was not very high off the ground, but it was filled with military officers, politicians and dignitaries wearing broad sashes to distinguish them from the crowd who came to listen.
Pushing up to the front of the temporary structure, were those who had gathered together at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as enlisted men, veterans and also family members of those who had died on this battlefield a little over four months before.
They came to remember those who had fallen in the bloodiest of all Civil War engagements, and to hear the words of the famed orator, Edward Everett who was to deliver the keynote speech of the ceremony.
A Dreary Day
The weather was overcast and the fields, especially where they had been excavated for new grave sites, were muddy from recent rainstorms which had hindered preparations for the event.
The dreary skies reflected the somber mood of the thousands who came to attend the dedication of the cemetery.
After a military procession, seating of dignitaries including President Lincoln, and a funeral dirge played by the band, the Rev. Mr. Stockton, offered a 941 word invocation which was followed by an oration by Edward Everett, the main speaker at the ceremony .
Professor and Statesman
Everett had considerable personal credentials. He was a Harvard professor, and later president of Harvard. He also had served as a US Representative, Senator and Secretary of State -- as well as Governor of Massachusetts and Minister to Great Britain.
He was one of the most famous orators of the day and certainly the person that the respectful crowd wanted to hear. His speech was expected to be eloquent and inspiring.
Lincoln had been invited to "make a few concluding remarks" directly after Everett's lengthy speech. It was almost an afterthought to ask the president to speak, at all.
President Lincoln knew the people had come to hear the more famous speaker, and kept his presentation short.
Much to Everett's credit, and perhaps reflective of his sincerity, he later complimented the president for making the better speech of the day, even though the president took only two minutes, rather than the two hours that Everett needed.
If you grew up in the USA, you are familiar with the speech Lincoln gave on November 19, 1863. You may have even memorized it in school.
Two hundred and seventy words spoken almost a century and a half ago, remain fresh and inspiring even in these times.
What makes it so memorable and effective?
Let's look at it as a piece of writing and explore a couple of other ways it could have been written.
If you haven't read it for awhile-- look at the example to refresh your memory.
The Gettysburg Address
There are at least five versions of the Gettysburg Address. The one above is the one inscribed on the interior wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The others vary only slightly, most notably, some are penned without the phrase, "under God", which may have been added at the time the speech was being delivered.
Some of the other drafts may have been early edits, but others were re-written for people (including Edward Everett) who requested a copy after the event.
Deconstructing the Address
Now, let's do a little deconstruction. First of all, Why "four score and seven"?
Lincoln might have just said "many years ago " or "a few generations ago" or even "eighty seven years ago".
Remember that the English language has some special names for certain numbers, like half dozen(6), dozen(12), baker's dozen(13) gross (12 dozen or 144), score (20), score-dozen (240) etc.
Back in 1863 when the speech was given, these terms were used more frequently than they are today. Everyone knew that a "score " was twenty.
So the phrase "Four Score and seven" meant four times twenty, plus seven. In a way, it sounds like less than saying eighty-seven years and perhaps was meant to emphasizes the point that the nation was born less than a century before -- not so many years in the life of a nation.
Poetry and Purpose
It also sounds more poetic, but I think one of the main reasons that phrase was used is that it was an attention-getter.
Requiring the listener to do that simple mental calculation is a little like asking a question; it wakes up the brain and requires the hearer to be an active listener.
Lincoln went on to highlight the founding principles of American liberty and equality, and in a rhetorical way, he asks if a country based on such ideas can withstand the trial of civil war. Again he is engaging the listener as they consider the question.
His praise of those who died in battle is deeply respectful and sincere without sliding into the sentimental and over emotional language that sometimes is typical of Victorian era writing and speeches.
Almost more important than what he says is, what he does not say. The war is still going on at this point and animosities are high, yet he focuses no reproach or malice toward the rebels. Instead he refers back to original national ideals with a hope that the nation will be restored to fulfill the original vision its founders.
The address, in fact, reflects back to the theme of a much earlier political speech made by Lincoln. When he was only 28 years old and first running for public office, he pondered the fact that there were very few veterans of the Revolutionary war still alive. He feared that their loss might be the start of a time when people began to forget about America's founding ideals. The old veterans of the revolutionary war would not be around to tell their tales.
The speech at Gettysburg was an inspiring reminder of the principles he held dear.
Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln
The No-Frills Edit
What if a no-nonsense editor had gotten a hold of his text and revised it so that all the "unnecessary stuff" was removed.
It might have sounded like this:
"Eighty-seven years ago our country began with liberty and equality. This war makes us wonder if it will survive.
We now dedicate this battefield cemetery, but the soldiers did more.
Speeches will be forgotten, but we'll remember the soldiers.
Inspired by them, we have work to do. We promise to keep the government and freedom alive."
There! Cut about 200 unneeded words . . . Less is more… huh?
No. It would have been forgotten . . . and deservedly so.
Lincoln and Son,"Tad"
Now, as an writing exercise that demonstrates the effective and economical word usage of the original text, let's spin the speech into a state of uber-wordiness that presents the same ideas, while squeezing the meaning out, and using a dumpload of adjectives and adverbs.
The wordy version might have said:
"Four times 20 , plus seven years back from this year, our staunch and sacrificing original American patriots came together to debate, plan, frame and firmly establish the foundations and guiding principles of this great and glorious country.
As a newly formed collection of states in the relatively recently discovered world, after years of colonial domination, they would subsequently collaborate to establish a government with a basis of idealism rooted on this new continent, which had once been unknown, to the self-serving colonizers before their discovery and exploitation .
This new nation, began with men who had idealistic dreams of liberty from unfair domination and taxation by royalty or dictators , demanded the rights of self-determination for its people. They strongly believed in the sublime proposal that all men are universally born as equals in most every basic sense, and that all should have an undeniable say in the ultimate decisions affecting their own personal and corporate destiny."
But Lincoln conveyed these thoughts in about thirty words:
"Fourscore 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."
This depiction of the battle at Gettysburg gives a good overview of the devastating battles there where about 50,000 soldiers fought. There were about 15,000 killed, wounded or captured in the confusing confrontation. Neither side could really claim victory with such heavy losses.
The wordy version of the presidential address might have continued like this:
"It's been a while now that all of us have been divided into factions that have resulted in one half of the country is fighting with the other half in a war which separates us philosophically, and is trying out the idea that a nation which started out united in principle can hold itself together and remain united in fact for a long period of time.
"Well, here we are on a field where a great battle of the war has taken place fairly recently. This particular battle of this war is over, even though the war is not, so we have come together to designate part of the land which comprises this battlefield, as a graveyard for some of those soldiers who were killed here while trying to support the idea that the country doesn't fall apart and disappear altogether.
"In order to give some meaning to the terrible sacrifices that have been made in this battle and in this war, we have come to mark the occasion with memorial ceremonies and speeches, which seems to be the right and suitable thing for us to do on such occasions as this, as is our custom....."
But Lincoln only said:
"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 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."
The wordy version might have said:
" In reality, though, we can't really do too much to make this place too much more significant or special than it already is by virtue of those who fought and selflessly gave up their young lives here. All of them have already patriotically given this place , which now seems so peaceful, special meaning and honor, by their glorious struggle for the cause of unity and freedom and also by their unimaginable bravery and courage, fighting through the smoky shrouds of battle on this muddy plain. Nothing we do or say now, after the fact, no matter how many words we use, can add to, or take away from the special importance and honor that has already been historically given in a much larger sense, to this place by the spilling of their blood in terrible soldierly sacrifices and unimaginable heroism."
But Lincoln only said:
"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. "
"Nobody will notice very much of what has been done here today to commemorate the dedication of this cemetary, or even remember much of what has been spoken on this particular occasion. Words , no matter how beautiful or well-presented, are heard and forgotten quickly they have little lasting influence on those who hear them. But the desperate and heroic deaths that occurred here, the grievous sacrifices and undeniable courage of the soldiers who fought here so sacrificially and selflessly will not, and should not be ever forgotten for ages and ages to come."
But Lincoln only needed to say:
"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. "
"But because of their undeniable sacrifice in the giving of their lives and futures ,that we, who are still alive and able to act on their behalf and for their sake and for the sake of generations to come, to pledge our minds and hearts to the task of finishing the noble work that still remains to be done.-- the work that they so selflessly and gallantly began and pushed forward to this point by showing their resolve in battle, and by their ..........(on and on and on...)
But Lincoln only said:
"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. "
The wordy rewritier might also have said:
"We need to be inspired and re-energized by the remembrance of supreme sacrifices by those who are honored and celebrated for the significant and unrepayable allegiance and dedication to their county which can never be measured, that we will make sure their battle is continued and their lives not wasted in the fight to make sure our country will have a resurgence of the high ideals upon which it was originally founded, so that the government established by freedom loving people, by the grace of an almighty, omnipresent , just, loving, merciful , wise and omnipotent providential power shall re-emerge into the glorious blessings of adherence to the principles of freedom and liberty or everyone and will continue for time immemorial or until the end of the world , possibly in 2012, according to the Mayan calendar.
But Lincoln only said:
"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."
Instead of using only 270 words, Lincoln could have easily said the same thing in at least 950 words... even making it a little longer to outdistance the wordiness of the opening invocation prayer.
The Man and the Martyr
If you have ever stood in the memorial to Lincoln in Washington DC, you know that his huge sculpted image is a tribute to a martyr who has gained mythical proportions in the minds of Americans.
He was a man who grew up in poverty but gained a leadership position where he found himself in the midst of a national moral crisis that threatened the existence of our country.
The course of history depended upon some of his decisions, even while he was dealing with the personal sorrows and trials of being married to a mentally unstable wife, and enduring the grief of losing two young sons.
Despite his many personal trials, he could be jovial and light-hearted, yet you still get a feeling that he was a just a humble man whose sorrows made him even more introspective and appreciative of high ideals.
He probably would have been amazed to know how "long remembered" his short speech was.