Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gett This

Seven score and six years ago the central mythological figure of American politics gave a speech to 15,000 onlookers at the dedication of a cemetery on the site of the battle that resulted in the largest number of casualties in the entire civil war. The figure was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and the site was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This week marks the 146th anniversary of that speech which has become one of the most-quoted, most-mimicked, and most-influential political addresses in American history, and we’ve had some doozies.

The speech was delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, during the American Civil War, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg took place from July 1-3 and resulted in around 46,000 to 51,000 casualties in that short time span. At the end of the last day of fighting there the battlefield contained the bodies of more than 7,500 dead soldiers and several thousand horses of the Army of the Potomac and the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia. All that carnage strewn about a wheat field in the middle of summer in Pennsylvania had to smell real nice…{wretch}. Gettysburg is often noted as a turning point in the war for many reasons, but I think it is telling that after the loss at Gettysburg Lee's Confederate army conducted no more strategic offensives and merely reacted to the initiative of Ulysses S. Grant for the remaining two years of the war.
SOunds like they had their tails tucked firmly you-know-where.

So, around four months after the battle, when the burial of the American soldiers that were lost was about halfway done (remember there were no backhoes back then…{hork}), a formal dedication ceremony to remember the fallen and consecrate the site was put together. The official program organized for that day included:

Music, by Birgfield's Band

Prayer, by Reverend T.H. Stockton, D.D.

Music, by the Marine Band

Oration, by Hon. Edward Everett

Music, Hymn composed by B.B. French, Esq.

Dedicatory Remarks, by the President of the United States

Dirge, sung by Choir selected for the occasion

Benediction, by Reverend H.L. Baugher, D.D.

The intended main event on the program that day was not the President’s remarks, rather it was the oration given by Edward Everett. Everett's almost 14,000-word speech was two hours long and, although it wasn’t poorly written or received, was greatly overshadowed by Lincoln’s simple address that followed. The political import of his words cannot be understated. Here was a president that was forced into a civil war that he didn’t want, and was constantly fighting against his mishandling of it. American casualties and damages were higher than any war before or since, and he had just instituted a draft. In short, he was on the fast track to sawing logs for a living. back in Illinois. However, the President seized this opportunity to use the battle to galvanize the nation and pull his arse out of the fire. So, after the two hour discourse given by the previous speaker (and the people in the crown had the chance to wake up), the President took the stage and said the following words:

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.

That’s it. In two minutes and roughly ten sentences Abraham Lincoln had captured, penned and delivered one of the most-important speeches in all of American history. It was over so quickly that the photographers didn’t even have time to get set up, so there are no known pictures taken of the speech. The speech was powerful enough to keep him in office, which, as we all know, led to his eventual assassination. At the time, newspapers either panned or praised it depending upon what side of the aisle they were on, but the simplicity and direct nature of this speech have allowed it to live on through almost 150 years and continue to be an example for many speeches and addresses today.

I think all political speeches should be limited to ten sentences, don’t you?

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