A Small Tribute to a Short Speech

1000 Voices at Olean High School Photo Credit:  Mrs. Skrobacz

1000 Voices at Olean High School
Photo Credit: Mrs. Skrobacz

Our local high school put on a special program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettyburg address.  A retired teacher put together the presentation which included videos, re-enactors from local regiments, the Bucktails and 154th NY, and period music.  I was invited to give a five to ten minute presentation.  The highlight of my presentation was my daughter’s introduction.  She is a senior and so very poised in front of a microphone.  Anyway with no further a-do here is my presentation:

Given the mythic proportion that Lincoln has achieved, there is a persistent notion that the Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope by Abraham Lincoln as he made his way by train to Gettysburg.

There are several reasons to doubt this.

First off, Lincoln’s presence at Gettysburg was an afterthought. He actually had to petition the organizers of the cemetery dedication to include him in the dedication ceremony. The very fact that Lincoln called his effort an “address” indicates that he’d prepared it, not for a general delivery but for a specific occasion and a select audience.

Lincoln recognized that this gathering was an opportunity to bring the country “up to speed” –as we would put it–on the meaning and worth of the sacrifice these Union soldiers had made and all the others were making. He wanted to remind the nation that while this war was being fought at an enormous cost in lives and treasure, it was being fought for an immeasurably valuable prize. Lincoln would not take an opportunity like this lightly and he would traditionally prepare very carefully for such an event.

Secondly, Lincoln liked to think on his feet. Literally. All his life, he walked while he thought and he thought while he walked. He walked back and forth in his White House office when he was puzzling out or preparing something. That’s a little difficult on a moving train.

He also had a habit of reading things out loud –whether he was reading someone else’s writing –a funny story or a newspaper article–or was composing a letter, or a speech or a proclamation.  The cadence, the content, the impact of what he was working on seemed much clearer when he heard it spoken aloud.

Lincoln was always extremely unwilling to speak off-the-cuff. The night he arrived at Gettysburg a crowd gathered outside the house he was visiting. The crowd called for a speech and Lincoln resolutely refused to say anything but an extended version of “Good evening.” He didn’t want, he said, to say anything foolish.

This last concern was particularly important because Lincoln’s only direct access to his fellow countrymen was through the written word. So each word he spoke or wrote for the record had to be very carefully crafted. There was no radio. No television. Lincoln hardly ever left the White House. This trip to Gettysburg was one of the longest trips out of Washington that he took during his whole Presidency. Lincoln spent probably 95% of his presidency in his White House office. The country came to him. Anybody willing to wait long enough would have the chance to briefly meet and speak with Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln spoke for the record, reporters took his words down more or less accurately in short hand. His words appeared in the newspapers in black and white for his friends and enemies to read. It was the president’s standard forum when he wanted to “speak” to the country. Lincoln was by profession a lawyer. So he designed his speeches as a lawyer would, using precise language to develop a compelling argument.

But Lincoln also possessed the soul of a poet. He had, in fact, written some actual poetry –all of it terrible, dreary and gloomy –really bad – but when his poetic inclination was tempered by his need for lawyerly precision, the results were some of the most remarkable and carefully prepared political speeches ever delivered. The only ad-lib, the only improvised words in the Gettysburg Address, were the words “under God” in the phrase “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”  Lincoln was an “agnostic” meaning he was someone who did not deny the existence of God but didn’t acknowledge the existence of God either.  Apparently, somewhere between Fort Sumter and November 19, 1863 – as the war took a turn for the better with major Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, God was beginning to look pretty good.   

Lincoln had read widely and his writings had obvious influences: the Bible for sure –he could quote relevant passages from the Bible to suit almost any occasion. He was an aficionado of Shakespeare…he read the plays and attended performances of them regularly in Washington… he admired and studied classic political orators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. One less noted but very obvious influence on Lincoln was the telegraph. The President spent an inordinate amount of time at the telegraph office, which was situated a brisk walk from the White House. It was his sanctuary from the cares and activities of the White House and it was also the nerve center of the war effort. Lincoln telegraphed constantly to his commanders in the field. These telegrams had to be short, exact and put in terms that could not be misunderstood. Lincoln developed an affinity for the blunt “shorthand” communication of the telegraph. The influence of this “compressed” language helps account for the brevity of the Gettysburg address.

The actual physical presentation of this address is interesting to visualize. Lincoln sat with dozens of local and national dignitaries on a raised platform on a breezy hillside in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. November 19th can be cold and blustery. A large crowd, thousands of people, filled acres of space to listen to noted lecturer Edward Everett, the featured speaker, give a two hour speech –which he had memorized. His talk encompassed the Gettysburg battle in some detail and he expounded on the significance of the battle and the meaning of the war.

Then Lincoln stood up and gave his two-minute address, which he read. There were no microphones. There was no amplification. Lincoln had a rather high-pitched voice but it was a voice that carried wonderfully. So the original delivery of the Gettysburg Address was not some solemn, sonorous presentation but a belted out rendition by an expert stump-speaking political pro, one of whose principal qualifications for office in pre-electronics 19th century America was a voice that carried to the farthest person back in an enormous crowd in a large open field while the wind was blowing. What distinguished Lincoln in this specialized field of orators and politicians was that the short hand reporters dispatched to document his speeches would stand listening, completely enthralled, and forget to write down what he said.

Lincoln sat down-there was prolonged applause–yet he sensed that the speech had not gone down well. “That speech didn’t scour,” was the phrase he used, meaning the speech hadn’t carried through smoothly, as a plow would. He didn’t know it at the time but he was probably feeling the effects of the mild case a small pox that he developed soon after returning to Washington. Some newspapers ridiculed his effort but Edward Everett, an old political adversary of the President, wrote to him that Lincoln’s two minute effort had come closer to the “central idea of the occasion” than Everett had in his two hours.  

In evaluating Lincoln’s stature on the stage of history – and he stands way, way up there – the Gettysburg Address is certainly important on his resume. If there can be any question of his genius, it’s merely necessary to ask who else on earth could come up with a phrase that became one of the most famous passages in the English language and that will be remembered so long as the language is spoken. What did he come up with when all he was trying to say was “87 years ago?”  Four score and seven years ago.

This is not “train ride, back of an envelope material.”

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