Lincoln's Good Words

Peter W. Schramm

November 19, 2013

Because in the heat of political battles it is easy to forget the power of words, it is good now to have the opportunity to be reminded of old words.  And it is even better to be reminded of good, old, short words on behalf of a good cause.

The Gettysburg Address was delivered 150 years ago today.

To be so reminded is more than an act honoring Lincoln or more even than conventional patriotism.  The power and meaning of that speech rests on the 272 words he spoke on that day.

It took him just over two minutes to speak poetic words that have stretched from battlefields to hearthstones and hearts, all over this land.  We should be grateful that it has held up under the silent artillery of time.

Abraham Lincoln’s great work and short life remind us of the fragility of the American experiment in self-government.  We know that Lincoln was always devoted to this “glorious theme,” and, as he once put it, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring

from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

He knew that “most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men.”  He also knew that while other nations had existed from untold generations, ours had a birth, conceived in liberty, and was dedicated to words, to a proposition that all were created equal, that all men had natural rights, that none had been born with spurs on their heels or saddles on their backs.

Lincoln reminds us that this is a country founded on words, on ideas.

Four score and seven years ago (reminding us of the Psalmist’s calculation of the life-span of man) our fathers brought forth a nation conceived in liberty, as we are called upon to dedicate ourselves to the great task remaining before us.  He asks us to be devoted to the cause and to the great unfinished work before us.

Lincoln knew that this was an “undecided experiment.”  We had to prove, as he said in the beginning of the war, that “popular government is not an absurdity.”  We must prove that the people are capable of governing themselves.

It so happened that President Lincoln heard of the Union victory at Gettysburg on the Fourth of July 1863, and on the Seventh of July he heard of Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, which also took place on the Fourth.  When he was asked a few months later to say “a few good words” dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg, he accepted with alacrity, even though he knew that the main speaker at the event would be Edward Everett, a famed orator.

Everett’s Latinate prose lasted over two hours, and may have been appropriate as a funeral oration in some ancient land.  Because Everett had sent Lincoln a copy of his speech, Lincoln’s short speech may be seen as an American response.  That is why we remember nothing from Everett’s disquisition.  Lincoln’s entirely American idiom, on the other hand, is both lovely and memorable.  Of the 272 words, only 32 are Latin-based words, the rest are Anglo-Saxon.

This is a difficult feat since only a minority of English words are Anglo-Saxon-based.  But it is these words that give power and force and poetry to the language.  The words are short and old and good, and everyone understands them.

The Address is an elegant prose-poem and its ten sentences are constructed in three paragraphs—past, present, and future; birth, death, rebirth.  Unlike in previous speeches, he doesn’t use the word Union (he used it 20 times in his First Inaugural), but rather speaks of the nation, and does so fives times.  This is significant.  (He did not write it at the last minute on the back of an envelope, by the way.)  He was speaking to the whole nation, South as well as North.  There are no derogatory words of this temporary enemy.

The cadence and charm of the language has to do with its clarity and purpose.  Its intended audience was all the people, rather than leaders or intellectuals. The people felt comfortable with its iambic pattern, a pattern natural to sober English speech.  (That is why it is so easy to memorize.)  By the end of it, a reader—if he reads the speech aloud to himself—will notice the iambic pentameter and the spell-like diction moving to a new birth of freedom, making sure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  Everyone needed to know why the war was worth fighting, and why it had to be won.  A new birth of freedom depended on it.

The next day, Edward Everett sent a note to the President: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of that occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”  With his good, old, short words, Abraham Lincoln did come to the central idea, and as we are elevated by this greatest American speech, we should be grateful that he did.

Peter W. Schramm is a Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center and professor of political science at Ashland University.