American Meditations: A Word Fitly Spoken
December 1, 2002
I think it was Mark Twain who wrote: "It is noble to be good; it is still nobler to teach others to be good—and less trouble."
The humor of his joke arises in part from an apparent disproportion between good words and good deeds which is captured in the saying, "that is more easily said than done." Because it can be easier to say than to do a good or noble thing, we have such other common sayings as "practice what you preach" or "actions speak louder than words."
It is true, metaphorically speaking, that there can be great eloquence in deeds. This is suggested in the title of the fine old John Wayne movie, "The Quiet Man," and in the west African maxim made famous to Americans by Teddy Roosevelt: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."
But, as even these examples show, deeds alone are literally dumb. The most heroic deeds, without words to explain them, are mere "sound and fury, signifying nothing." This is why every hero deserves a poet, just as every poet needs a hero. It sometimes falls to the lot of the statesman to serve as poet—to give to noble deeds a voice; to give to heroism the immortality it deserves; to enshrine the heroes in the minds and hearts of untold generations.
These were some of the vagrant thoughts that occurred to me in spare moments as the November elections gave way to the 84th commemoration of Veterans Day (Armistice Day) and a week or so later to the 139th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Words and deeds; heroes and poets.
America has had no greater statesman-poet than Lincoln. Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, to dedicate a cemetery for the burial of the thousands of Union soldiers who had died in battle at that site four months before, between July 1 and July 3. The carnage in that battle had been horrific. There were about 50,000 dead, wounded, or missing soldiers from both sides. Despite desperate efforts to bury the dead, weeks after the battle arms and legs reached up from shallow graves all around the battlefield. Hogs rooted among them. Taken by itself, it is hard to imagine a more overpowering picture of mindless slaughter. But it was not mindless slaughter.
The sacrifices at Gettysburg were emblematic of the unsurpassed sacrifices of the Civil War as a whole. America’s greatest sacrifice deserved America’s greatest speech, and Lincoln provided it, in 272 words. Read it again, if you have not committed it to memory. Make a pilgrimage to the battlefield.
The most important element of political speech, as Aristotle taught, is the character of the speaker. In this respect, Lincoln’s whole life had been an exordium to the words he would speak at Gettysburg, and his untimely death would be the tragic peroration. Lincoln’s words carry the weight they carry in part because we know that, for the cause he extolled, he was always willing to give the last full measure of devotion himself, as in the end he did. With his life—distilled, so to speak, into a few precious words—Lincoln did all that a great mind and soul could do to ensure that "these dead shall not have died in vain."
Lincoln’s words are fittingly humble before the deeds they come to memorialize: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here…" But in truth, his unsurpassed words and the heroic deeds of the soldiers he honored are inseparable—they will need one another forever. They are bound together in the cause, given immortal voice by Lincoln, for which those men gave the final sacrifice.
Lincoln, in calling at Gettysburg for a "new birth of freedom," evoked the words and the deeds that together advanced that cause, four score and seven years before, in the original birth of American freedom. This inseparable union of words and deeds in the American cause: Each Veterans Day reminds us that it did not end with the Revolution; it did not end with Gettysburg; it did not end with World War I or the war against Hitler or the cold war; and it will not end with the current war against Islamist terrorists. The cause of freedom will always deserve heroes, and the heroes will always deserve poets.
Christopher Flannery is a member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University.