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Critiques/Abraham Lincoln

The Gettysburg Address



19 November 1863

This is the most important speech ever delivered by an American President. If you want a debate, judge it by words and seconds. At under three minutes and less than three hundred words, measure for measure, it is undoubtedly the most important speech ever delivered by an American President.

Roosevelt on Pearl Harbour, Kennedy in Berlin, and Obama in Pennsylvania are up there, but this is the most important. Despite living in a sound bite age in the 21st century, Obama’s is the longest by the way, by some way.

As a study in clarity of language, focus on the purpose, and power of longevity, Lincoln is the man.

What if Lincoln had not said “of the people, by the people, for the people…” but rather that those who were better and cleverer than “the people” would muddle on, sort things out and let them know what had been decided?



What if he had bottled it, or fudged it, and not said that “it is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced”? What if he had equivocated and taken a step back?

What if he had not said that his forebears were “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and that it was necessary that the nation “conceived in Liberty” should keep on keeping on?

What if he had not found the words that essentially said that America’s “improbable experiment in democracy”, as Barack Obama named it just last year, should continue?

We might be living in a very different world.

What we learn from these three minutes is that brevity is powerful; before Lincoln, the main oration of the day was by Edward Everett. You will have to look hard to find it, but Lincoln’s words have endured, and they define a nation.

We learn that brevity is achieved through preparation. Sometimes speeches need to be long, but often speakers have simply not had the time to make their remarks any shorter. This is a short speech, as were many of Churchill’s during the darkest days of the Second World War. There are less than three hundred words in The Gettysburg Address and none are wasted. You should not be fooled into thinking Lincoln got up and rattled off a few sentences. This was crafted, drafted and re-drafted. When he rose to speak Lincoln knew exactly where he was going.

We learn that modesty, humility and authenticity are powerful levers of persuasion. This was as much about the man as the message. When Lincoln said that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here” he undoubtedly meant it. He meant that neither he nor anyone else could hope to properly articulate the sacrifice made by “those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

He was right with the sentiment but wrong about the effect of his words. On the first of June 1865, Senator Charles Sumner said in his eulogy to Lincoln, that “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.” And, of course, Lincoln eventually paid the same price as those whom he immortalised at Gettysburg.

That says all you need to know about the power of the right words, at the right time, said in the right way.

More than a speech, this was essentially an early press release- some words for the nation- since the intention must have been to ensure that a clear, unambiguous message was put out to the people. The speech was so brief and the crowd so dispersed, that, by the time many knew what was going on and got back into position, it was all over. Think about the disappointed Manchester United fans leaving Camp Nou in Barcelona after ninety minutes of the 1999 Champions League Final. At least they can reprise the last three minutes on YouTube.

And what a press release it was:

We start from the position that “all men are created equal” in this new, liberated nation. King and Obama have both borrowed the “Four score and seven years ago” opening for their own seminal speeches on race in the 20th and 21st centuries. Both were referencing Lincoln and calling the nation to account on equality.

Then Lincoln deals with the reality of the present, and the fact that the nation is enduring a great war. Physical location is important here, he is on the battlefield. And there is a nod to the seriousness of the situation: they are in the thick of it, not in a fancy office or behind a congressional podium. This moment is a test. But while it is a test, in dedicating the field to the fallen Lincoln reminds his audience that their own concerns should be put in context. Others before them have given much more.

And now a stroke of genius, because he says that he, or we, “cannot hallow this ground”; that those who sacrificed are “far above our poor power to add or detract”. He moves from there to the notion that we are not worthy, to extolling us to be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us” as the best way of honouring the dead.

So we go from dedication, to not being worthy, to the notion that the only fit way to remember the fallen is to rededicate ourselves to the task at hand. Ronald Reagan referenced such sentiments in his eulogy to those lost in the Challenger disaster, “the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave…” in telling a grieving nation that the space programme continuing is the brave, right and proper thing to do.

In any speech, you have to know from the beginning where it will all end. If nothing else, the audience needs to know when to applaud. Lincoln’s peroration uses the simplest language, words that anyone can immediately understand, “these dead shall not have died in vain”, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”, and, of course, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Less than three hundred words, under three minutes, remembered for all time. A study of clarity, focus and power if ever there was one.


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