The surprisingly short story of the Gettysburg Address is that it was a surprisingly short speech — 270 words or so — delivered by Abraham Lincoln as part of the dedication ceremonies for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, on Nov. 19, 1863, four and a half months after the climactic battle of the American Civil War.
But the long story is that no single American utterance has had the staying power, or commanded the respect and reverence, accorded the Gettysburg Address. It has been engraved (on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial), translated (in a book devoted to nothing but translations of the address), and analyzed in at least nine book-length critical studies over the last century.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put down his morning paper’s report of the address and wrote to his publisher that “Lincoln’s brief speech at Gettysburg … seems to me admirable.” Longfellow’s friend Charles Sumner wrote, “Since Simonides wrote the epitaph for those who died at Thermopylae, nothing equal to them has ever been breathed over the fallen dead.” He added: “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
What is less clear to us today is why it struck so many people as a landmark from the start. Partly, this instant recognition of the address’s power grew out of its language. It obeys the Churchillian dictum: Short words are best, and the old words when short are best of all. The address relies on crisp, plain vocabulary, over against the three-decker Latinate lexicon beloved of so many 19th-century school textbooks. Of some 270 words — there’s no recording — about two-thirds are single-syllable, and a half-dozen, four-syllable. Rarely has so much been compressed into such simple and uncomplicated elements.
The address is also memorable because, frankly, it is short on length, too, enough to be easily memorized. Lincoln had been invited to deliver only “a few appropriate remarks” as a kind of benediction. The formal oration at the ceremonies was to be delivered by Edward Everett — former congressman, governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard, secretary of state (under President Millard Fillmore), senator (briefly) and, most recently and most ironically, candidate for vice president in 1860 on the ticket of the short-lived Constitutional Union Party, running against Lincoln.
If we want to see what classical speech in 19th-century America looked like, Everett is the man. He delivered a two-hour-plus, 13,000-word doozy, reminding the thousands who crowded around the speakers’ platform in the new cemetery that “it was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner,” that the fallen occupied a place alongside those “who fell at Marathon,” that (in Horace’s maxim) “it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country,” and that (in the words of Pericles) “the whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men.”
But Everett was all length and no sound bite. At the end, there was little alternative but to report the whole oration, word for word, or simply forget it.
Lincoln’s strong suit, on the other hand, was his capacity to capture an idea in the fewest and clearest words possible. So, in the address, he describes the past and what it did (create a republic of equal citizens), then relates what the people at the ceremonies are doing in the present (dedicating a cemetery), and then moves to what they are to do for the future (dedicate themselves to the same principles the soldiers were dedicated to). In that way, the address is almost anorexic: It makes no mention of slavery or secession or the Constitution, paints no picture of the great battle, and even fails to acknowledge the civilian politicians — David Wills of Gettysburg, Andrew G. Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania — who had made the purchase of the cemetery acreage possible.
Yet, for all of its famous brevity, the Gettysburg Address is not so simple or compact as it seems. It may be only 270 words long, but those words are woven into 10 complicated sentences — all more cumbersome to parse on the page than to hear in the open. And Lincoln does not mind throwing compactness to the wind when he wants to make a lilting impression on the ear. In fact, the well-known repetitive triplets — “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — are the exact opposite of compactness and constitute a puzzling luxury if we consider the address only as a terse alternative to Everett’s.
The address is less like an oration, and more like that oldest of American genres, the Puritan jeremiad, the public sermon that warned our forebears of their sins but also offered them a path to redemption. The three-part, past-present-future movement in the address matches the same movement in the jeremiad, and like it, the address contains both a word of warning and a promise of blessing.
The warning Lincoln issues is his admission that the Civil War was testing whether or not democracies are inherently unstable — “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” Today, many take democracy for granted as the endpoint of political development. But it did not look that way in 1863. The French Revolution, which promised to be the American Revolution’s beachhead in Europe, swiftly circled downward in the Reign of Terror and then the tyranny of Bonaparte; democratic uprisings in Spain in 1820, in Russia in 1825, in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848 were crushed by newly renascent monarchies or subverted by Romantic philosophers, glorying in regimes built on blood, soil and nationality rather than the Rights of Man.
The outbreak of the American Civil War only gave the monarchs further reason to rejoice. The survival of the American democracy had been a thorn in their royal sides, unsettling their downtrodden peoples with dreams of self-government. That this same troublesome democracy would, in 1861, obligingly proceed to blow its own political brains out — and do it in defense of the virtues of human slavery — gave the monarchs no end of delight.
Lincoln’s task at Gettysburg was to persuade his hearers, on the evidence offered by three days of battle, that democracy’s sun had not set after all. Gettysburg was not only a victory, but a victory won with the Union Army’s back to the wall, and its news came, appropriately, on July 4.
Above all, the victory was the product of self-sacrifice — 3,155 Union dead, 14,529 wounded and 5,365 “missing,” rivaling British and Allied losses at Waterloo. These casualties were not professional soldiers, Wellington’s “scum of the earth” who had taken their shilling and their chance together, nor were they dispirited peasants, driven into battle by the whips of their betters, but precisely those ordinary citizens whom the cultured despisers of democracy had laughingly doubted could ever be made to do anything but calculate profit and loss.
Looking out over the semicircular rows of graves, Lincoln saw in them a transcendence that few people, then or now, have been willing to concede to liberal democracy. And he saw something all could borrow, a renewed dedication to popular self-government, “that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.” Like the jeremiad, it would point toward a renewal, a new birth, not of freedom from sin, but political freedom.
The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.
Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”
Civil War (US) (1861-65), Gettysburg (Pa), Lincoln, Abraham, Speeches and Statements
Copyright NYTimes November 18, 2013