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Seven score and ten 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.

In his anti-biography of St. Augustine, James O’Donnell has these two evocative paragraphs:

The Lincoln Memorial is a good place to go to think about Augustine. Nothing we know suggests that Abraham Lincoln was a particularly happy or well-adjusted man. His life was full of failures, personal and professional. His side won a war that it had seized almost every opportunity to lose.

But if you go up those steps and enter that space, you find yourself between two panels of words. One contains the Gettysburg Address, the other his second inaugural address. Those short texts have a fiery power that leaps across a century and a half. Go there of a Sunday afternoon and there will always be a half-dozen people standing or sitting quietly in alcoves, just reading those texts, slowly, carefully, from beginning to end, and going off thoughtfully afterwards.

And here is the Gettysburg Address as President Eisenhower might have delivered it–a parody written by Oliver Jensen, a journalist who later founded and edited American Heritage and who must have attended too many of Eisenhower’s press conferences:

I haven't checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual. Well, now, of course, we are dealing with this big difference of opinion, civil disturbance you might say, although I don't like to appear to take sides or name any individuals, and the point is naturally to check up, by actual experience in the field, to see whether any governmental set-up with a basis like the one I was mentioning has any validity and find out whether that dedication by those early individuals will pay off in lasting values and things of that kind. . . . But if you look at the over-all picture of this, we can't pay any tribute - we can't sanctify this area, you might say - we can't hallow according to whatever individual creeds or faiths or sort of religious outlooks are involved like I said about this particular area. It was those individuals themselves, including the enlisted men, very brave individuals, who have given the religious character to the area. The way I see it, the rest of the world will not remember any statements issued here but it will never forget how these men put their shoulders to the wheel and carried this idea down the fairway. Now frankly, our job, the living individuals' job here is to pick up the burden and sink the putt they made these big efforts here for. It is our job to get on with the assignment - and from these deceased fine individuals to take extra inspiration, you could call it, for the same theories about the set-up for which they made such a big contribution. We have to make up our minds right here and now, as I see it, that they didn't put out all that blood, perspiration and - well - that they didn't just make a dry run here, and that all of us here, under God, that is, the God of our choice, shall beef up this idea about freedom and liberty and those kind of arrangements, and that government of all individuals, by all individuals and for the individuals, shall not pass out of the world-picture.

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The Patriot-News of Harrisburg marked the occasion by correcting its earlier editorial judgment. In 1863 the paper (then the Patriot & Union) panned the speech. Now they officially regret the error:

Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words “silly remarks,” deserving “a veil of oblivion,” apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.

In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion.

They have also republished the original editorial on the ceremonies at the Gettysburg battlefield, which is a fascinating document. The Patriot & Union's editors weren't simply dismissive of Lincoln's remarks because of their brevity or simplicity, although there is an element of condescension -- and indeed outright contempt -- for the president's intellectual abilities. However, the bulk of the commentary is an expression of disgust toward the ceremony itself. The editors felt that the memorializing of the fallen was insincere, a distasteful act of political calculation. I'd heard that people found Lincoln's remarks inappropriately brief and unadorned. This perspective, however, isn't part of the legend as I've heard it, and it strikes me as not only surprising but surprisingly modern:

[H]ow was it with the chief actors in the pageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whose loins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was  begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?...

They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief or elated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages  which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication....

On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution of politics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the President himself [i.e., the secretary of state], did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purpose of the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more ground than Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of the nation.

To paraphrase Abe: "You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time". He truly is though quite a remarkable man and he had his own demons of depression and melancholy to wrestle with. Ironically, one of the greatest leaders of all times, in all countries would probably not have fared well in our media saturated age. But America is lucky to claim him as their own!

 

Still, I like Ike and have to love that paraphrase! 

I've rea that the Gettysburg Address is now being taught as poetry in some American colleges.  It certainly has some of the characteristics of great poetry -- simplicity plus at the same time it is miraculously crammed full of highly important meaning, not to mention the strong free verse rhythm of the words which intensify the meaning and the resolve.  

As a combination of narrative plus a committment or binding, it's a "performative utterance".  It not only *says* something, it *does* something, which is much more powerful than merely saying something.  In Lincoln's case it committed the people to continuing the struggle for justice and continuing unity of the country.  Such use of words is like taking an oath which both says and binds the speaker, and like the very words of the Consecration of the Mass which say what is going on but also cause the presence of the Lord in the community in a special way. It wasn't just a speech.

 

On several occasions I've read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, and it's always been a moving experience for me. Not bad speeches for a man who had but two years total of formal schooling, but who had internalized the rhythms and language of the King James Bible and Shakespeare from repeated readings on his own. Garry Wills's excellent book on the Gettysburg Address reveals just how finely crafted that speech was.

And while Eisenhower was far from the wordsmith Lincoln was, he didn't give a half-bad speech (massaged by speechwriters no doubt) on the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on 11/19/63, filling in for President Kennedy who made the fateful trip to Dallas at least in part to quell political fires in his VP's home state.

Eisenhower's speech in its entirety:

"We mark today the centennial of an immortal address. We stand where Abraham Lincoln stood as, a century ago, he gave to the world words as moving in their solemn cadence as they are timeless in their meaning. Little wonder it is that, as here we sense his deep dedication to freedom, our own dedication takes added strength.

Lincoln had faith that the ancient drums of Gettysburg, throbbing mutual defiance from the battle lines of the blue and the gray, would one day beat in unison, to summon a people, happily united in peace, to fulfill, generation by generation, a noble destiny. His faith has been justified - but the unfinished work of which he spoke in 1863 is still unfinished; because of human frailty, it always will be.

Where we see the serenity with which time has invested this hallowed ground, Lincoln saw the scarred earth and felt the press of personal grief. Yet he lifted his eyes to the future, the future that is our present. He foresaw a new birth of freedom, a freedom and equality for all which, under God, would restore the purpose and meaning of America, defining a goal that challenges each of us to attain his full stature of citizenship.

We read Lincoln’s sentiments, we ponder his words - the beauty of the sentiments he expressed enthralls us; the majesty of his words holds us spellbound - but we have not paid to his message its just tribute until we - ourselves - live it. For well he knew that to live for country is a duty, as demanding as is the readiness to die for it. So long as this truth remains our guiding light, self-government in this nation will never die.

True to democracy’s basic principle that all are created equal and endowed by the Creator with priceless human rights, the good citizen now, as always before, is called upon to defend the rights of others as he does his own; to subordinate self to the country’s good; to refuse to take the easy way today that may invite national disaster tomorrow; to accept the truth that the work still to be done awaits his doing.

On this day of commemoration, Lincoln still asks of each of us, as clearly as he did of those who heard his words a century ago, to give that increased devotion to the cause for which soldiers in all our wars have given the last full measure of devotion. Our answer, the only worthy one we can render to the memory of the great emancipator, is ever to defend, protect and pass on unblemished, to coming generations the heritage - the trust - that Abraham Lincoln, and all the ghostly legions of patriots of the past, with unflinching faith in their God, have bequeathed to us - a nation free, with liberty, dignity, and justice for all."

 

  

I'd just add for those interested in more about Lincoln's oratory, Ronald C. White Jr. has written two very good books (in addition to his excellent biography of Lincoln) that focus on Lincoln's rhetorical skills: "Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural" and "The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words."   

The NYT's Disunion feature this morning is about "The Other Gettysburg Address," the day's main oration, delivered at great length and after much preparation by Edward Everett.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/the-other-gettysburg-add...

 

The rest, as they say, is history. Some prescient observers sensed the power of Lincoln’s achievement immediately. Everett was among them. The next day, he wrote to Lincoln: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln replied gracefully.

 

Thanks for this post, Joe. There is another quote from O'Donnell on the same page which is spectacular. Talking about the words of LIncoln and Augustine,  O'Donnell writes: "They can still sneak up on the unwary and overwhelm them with insights so persuasive and so beautifully expressed as to seem to defeat all debate. And even if the persuastion is resisted, the persuasivenss and the beauty remain undeniable. Accomplishment like that transcends its moment, is rewritten regularly, and persists because of its ability to remake itself." Lincoln, Augustine and Kennedy were deeply flawed men. Yet their ability to express themselves, along with our need for heroes/saints, makes us want to idolize them and give them immortality. It is far from certain that the savage Civil War was necessary, and quite dubious that a man who told us we could kill Christians and that babies would go to hell was in the right frame of mind. JFK had serious character defects. 

It is heresy to criticize them. Yet all three are idolized beyond credibility. The need for heroes overrules veracity. It is this kiind of thinking that gets us into wars like Iraq. The reason it took the Boston Globe and the courts to persuade Catholics that there was a serious pedophilia problem among the clergy. 

A note on O'Donnell and Catholic scholars. They loved his work on the Confessions which made it easy to teach in their courses and write about in their books.  But in his monumental work, "Augustine" they ran for cover as if candy was taken away from them. Too lazy to decipher a brilliantly original work and give up long held beliefs. . 

Bill, thanks for updating us as to these men's character flaws. Could you please tell me the flaws of the following historical figures?

  • Hamilcar Barca
  • Æthelred the Unready
  • Jim Henson
  • Louis Blériot
  • Orville Redenbacher
  • Anne of Cleves
  • Robin Gibb

It's good to have an expert on hand.

Abe, 

Nemo dat quod not habet. Or if you prefer: ex nihilo nihil fit. 

Thanks so much for being solicitious to learn. 

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.