November 19, 2013

Commentary: Anniversary of Gettysburg Address calls for appreciation of power of words

Lincoln chose his 272 words carefully for their meaning. Today, we should pay the same level of attention.

LOS ANGELES — The celebration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address offers an opportunity not simply to memorialize an extraordinary speech; it provides a model and a mirror for writing and speechmaking today.

about the author

Ronald C. White Jr., a fellow at the Huntington Library and a visiting professor of history at UCLA, is the author of “A. Lincoln: A Biography.”

“It’s only words”: This phrase captures what many feel about writing today. After all, our casual, rapid-fire communiques are tossed off at the push of a “send” button.

Within days of the battle of Gettysburg, plans were put in place to establish and dedicate the first national military cemetery. Gettysburg, Pa., civic leader David Wills invited Edward Everett, former president of Harvard University and the nation’s leading orator, to offer the main address. Later, Wills invited Lincoln to offer “a few appropriate remarks.” Definitely second fiddle.

In February 1861, as Lincoln delivered speeches during his inaugural train trip from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, Everett – reading newspaper reports – confided to his diary, “These speeches thus far have been of the most ordinary kind, destitute of everything, not merely of felicity and grace, but of common pertinence.”

To their mutual surprise, Lincoln and Everett had an unexpected appointment with history at Gettysburg.

The story of the composition of the address was hijacked more than a century ago by a sentimental novelist who spun her tale that Lincoln wrote his speech on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg.

No. We don’t know for certain when he wrote the speech, but we do know Lincoln continued to edit his address in the upstairs bedroom in Wills’ home, where he stayed the night before the dedication ceremony. He understood there is no such thing as good writing; there is only good rewriting.

On Nov. 19, 1863, Everett stepped forward and began to speak. He went on and on – for two hours and eight minutes. The crowd grew restless.

Lincoln rose, adjusted his spectacles, and began: “Four score and seven years ago.” The first two words rhyme, setting in motion a symphony of sounds. The biblical ring of his opening was rooted in lines from Psalm 90. Lincoln never mentioned the Bible, but the whole of his speech was suffused with both biblical content and cadence.

He first placed the dedication of the battlefield in the larger context of American history. In appealing to “our fathers,” Lincoln invoked a common heritage. The trajectory of that sentence underscored the American ideal that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln at Gettysburg asserted that the meaning of the Civil War was about both liberty and union.

After the long introductory line, with quick strokes Lincoln recapitulated that meaning of the war. Unlike Everett, he spent none of his words on the details of the battle. His purpose was rather to transfigure the Pennsylvania cemetery dedication, to address its larger meaning. He mentioned the battlefield briefly, but he used the word “nation” five times. The Civil War became for Lincoln a “testing” of whether the American experiment could “endure.”

When Lincoln declared, “But, in a larger sense,” he signaled he was expanding the parameters of his address. But before he lifted his audience’s eyes from the battlefield, Lincoln told them what they could not do: “We cannot dedicate; we cannot consecrate; we cannot hallow.”

Lincoln’s use of the negative was a pivot point, emphasizing by contrast what each person in the audience could do.

In his final three sentences Lincoln pointed away from words to deeds. He contrasted “what we say here” with “what they did here.”

In this closing paragraph, he continued his use of repetition: “To be dedicated; to be here dedicated.” And: “We take increased devotion”; “the last full measure of devotion.”

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