A Few Fine Words

Peter W. Schramm

December 1, 1997

November 19, 1997. It was on this day in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. The occasion was the dedication of a cemetery to bury many of those who had fallen in the Battle of Gettysburg, three months before.

It is strange that in an age when lengthy oratory was common, Lincoln gave a speech that in a mere 272 words gave the Civil War unambiguous meaning. Indeed in the middle of a war between citizens that had yet to be won on the field of battle, he explained in a way that everyone could understand what the nation stood for, and why it was worth the saving.

It may also seem odd that the Battle of Gettysburg has become important as a kind of symbol for the war. It was not a conclusive battle. General Lee made many mistakes, and offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis. And General Meade, who was urged by Lincoln to follow up Lee’s retreat on July 4th, did not. Meade then offered his resignation to President Lincoln.

The main speaker at the event dedicating the cemetery was Edward Everett, a former classics professor and president of Harvard, a famed orator. Lincoln was invited to give only a “few appropriate remarks” and the top billing went to Everett. The President was invited only as an afterthought. In fact the dedication was to have taken place earlier, but Everett couldn’t fit it into his schedule until the 19th of November.

Everett spoke for over two hours, and the ten to twenty thousand people there heard his polished, classical speech in his expertly modulated voice. Lincoln’s speech, delivered in his high tenor voice and Kentucky accent, lasted less than three minutes. He was interrupted five times by applause.

Those who were attentive recognized something fine and lasting in his words. They heard a student of the Bible and Shakespeare. They heard his rhythmic delivery and meaningful inflections, and recognized the imagery. They felt the short, crisp, Anglo Saxon words—there are only 32 words of Latinate origin—used by this master of the language, and they were moved to a deeper understanding.

Even Edward Everett recognized that Lincoln had done something excellent at Gettysburg. The next day he wrote to Lincoln: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

A few elements of the speech are worth recollecting. There are no names mentioned, no generals, no privates. There are no particulars of the battle mentioned at all. No reference to the carnage of the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. (Lee had almost 80,000 men in the field, and there were about 90,000 Union troops, with over 50,000 casualties). There are no sides in the struggle mentioned. No Union, no Confederates. There are just the brave men and the nation.

The central metaphor of the speech is one of birth and rebirth. This very physical, very bodily act of battle and war and burial, is a kind of spiritual baptism of the nation that was brought forth by our fathers, conceived in liberty four score and seven years before, in 1776. This, what he elsewhere calls, the “moral principle,” the once self-evident truth of human equality, proclaimed by the American revolutionaries in ’76, in this speech becomes a proposition, needing to be tested, to be proven. The philosophical foundation of the nation now becomes practical. Our actions should be aimed at proving the proposition to which we are dedicated to be true.

The war, the present, is part of that test, and in this present trial, Lincoln insists that we must rededicate ourselves of the truth bequeathed to us by our past in order that we might pass it on untainted, even ennobled by sacrifice, to the future. The war must be won—and won for the right reason. The immortality of the principle now depends in some way on the immortality of the nation. Otherwise the dead will have died in vain.

Lincoln reminds his listeners that it is up to Americans to prove that a nation based on equality, liberty, and consent may endure. In 1863 this was an open question. The resolve that Lincoln asks of his countrymen had universal significance because the proposition applies to all men of all colors, everywhere and always. If we can’t do this here, he was saying, all governments may always be based on force and fear and fraud. And legitimate, popular government may altogether perish from the earth.