It took Abraham Lincoln a couple of minutes to read the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Because it was a blustery day, most of the assembled couldn’t hear much of what he said, and anyway they had just suffered a two-hour speech by another dignitary. Some newspapers mocked Lincoln the next day, others praised the speech, but mostly the public reaction came to a “Meh.” One wonders what Twitter would have done with it. Probably best not to know.
Of course, since then the Address has been canonized. There are few examples of more perfect political rhetoric, and I mean those last two words in the classical Greek sense: language that seeks to help us live together in reasonable peace and empathy, because the polis pretty much is civilization. Every American should have a copy tacked up in their home or folded in a wallet, tucked inside a boot, taped to the front of a dictionary, saved on the iPhone or laptop. You’re an incomplete citizen if you are not familiar with it.
The text is beautifully written—a three-paragraph prose poem—but more striking is its moral, political, and rhetorical complexity. It is not a speech that should lead Americans to take unadulterated pride in themselves.
Lincoln emphasizes that the United States was founded on “the proposition that all men are created equal” (my italics). Given that he was leading a war against traitor-states who claimed the right to murder and enslave, a right they had long enjoyed (just like most of the men Lincoln calls “our fathers” did), the President was aware that the American project was not founded upon actual democratic liberty or equality. A nation might be “so conceived and dedicated,” but conception and dedication are not the same as historical accomplishment. Lincoln knew that. So did black Americans and American women.
The enormous melancholy of the Address obviously derives in part from the fact of mass death: of so many dead young men. No Memorial Day is “Happy”; pride and gratitude summoned in the memory of loss, yes and rightly so, but not happiness. However, these deaths and Lincoln’s responsive sadness were part of the larger existential horror the republic was undergoing, and from which it has never recovered, as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s masterful essay “The Case for Reparations” underscores. The Civil War foregrounded the American state’s many un-American habits, policies, and laws.
Lincoln’s deprecation of his own writing, an unusual rhetorical gesture in a presidential address, seems genuine. And it’s fitting that he does this. The dead men, the wounded and lost men too, and their broken families, and above all “the great task remaining,” were more important than “what we say here.” Nonetheless, we’re fortunate that the world did “note” and “remember” Lincoln’s text, because something like our poet-president’s honesty is badly needed in the present USA.
Children and young adults are murdered at school, and their families wail, yet our national elite do nothing to reduce the grisly saturation of our society with guns, while many citizens fall back upon the fatuous logic that because knives and cars can also be killing tools, we shouldn’t carefully regulate firearms, which are designed only as killing tools. Our schools remain disturbingly segregated by race, while our neighborhoods are sorted by income (and thus often by race). Our federal government treats veterans like embarrassing waste products. A majority of citizens appears content to let our grandchildren deal with the coming terrors of climate change. Too often we (that means TGR too) react defensively or incredulously or despairingly to these facts, withdrawing into easy pleasures like touchscreens, cynicism, championship sports, shopping, narcotics, protective irony. Many people don’t react at all. The Civil War ended less than two years after Lincoln gave the Address, but many other kinds of his “unfinished work” remain, waiting for us to address them.
The ideal way to read the Gettysburg Address is at the Lincoln Memorial, the greatest building in America, alongside other adults trying not to cry, or just crying. Reading alone, of course, is nearly as fine. Lincoln kept it short to emphasize its weight.
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 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.