Friday, November 19, 2010

Lincoln Speaks: The Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural

On this anniversary of perhaps the most famous and most often memorized speech in American history, I was thinking about the Gettysburg Address and originally started wondering why and how it became more famous and popular than Lincoln's Second Inaugural , a speech some historians argue was truly Lincoln's greatest speech. That is a view I can understand and even accept, as that address is simply a beautiful and powerful expression of the humility and kindness with which he looked at God's role in the war and a future relationship with those Southerners who had opposed the Union.

To try to answer my question, I pulled up a copy of each speech and read them both again. While doing so, an epiphany of sort struck me, and my understanding and appreciation of each speech, and of Lincoln himself, suddenly grew as I read and re-read the two great messages.

Both addresses are rather short, especially by the standards of Lincoln's era. The Second Inaugural contains several Biblical allusions and quotes, but overall strikes me as being more "concrete" in nature than the Gettysburg speech, with its more poetical and abstract language and structure.  As I was looking over the words of both addresses, I suddenly realized  that  the fundamental messages of  both are remarkably similar in  the way Lincoln focuses on the relationships between the American past, present and future. Both speeches weave their way through the past (near or far) until arriving in the present, before finishing strongly by looking ahead at the future this past and present were creating.  I had not noticed this pattern before.

Whether it's "four score and seven years ago," and "occasion corresponding to this four years ago,"  or "now we are engaged in a great civil war" and "at this second appearing to take the oath" or "it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us" and "let us strive on to finish the work we are in," the balance between past accomplishments, present realities and future responsibilities ties each era together beautifully in both speeches.

What I now appreciate most about these speeches is how Lincoln did not simply praise the men of the revolution or the soldiers who had fought and died in the Civil War and stop there, as it would have been so easy to do on both occasions. Instead, he pointed out this link between past, present and future and turned it into a personal and national duty to continue the works of those men, to ensure that this nation those Founding Fathers had created and  for which those soldiers had fought and bled would not "perish from the face of the earth" but that its citizens would, rather, help "achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." These were not mere empty words or hollow promises; both speeches served as a call to arms to his audience to make a commitment to preserve the United States as one nation and to prove that democracy was a legitimate form of government even in the modern world.

As to my original query about why the "few appropriate remarks" at Gettysburg remain so much more well-known than the remarkable Second Inaugural, that remains a question for future study, but this effort began quite strongly, bringing me a new understanding and appreciation for each of these speeches, their structures and their words. 

Below is the text of the Gettysburg Address, along with a couple of sketches of the scene in Pennsylvania that day 147 years ago. 


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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