Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sesquicentennial Speech

Yesterday marked 150 years since Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address.

There was an error in that speech: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” There are very few speeches more noted and remembered. We could probably name The Sermon on the Mount as more memorable—more memorized, more quoted, more honored. But it’s hard to come up with another. Moments of many other speeches are notable:
photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”—Ronald Reagan
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”—John F. Kennedy
“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”—Winston Churchill
Among modern (since the inception of the United States) speeches by political persons, it may be that Abraham Lincoln’s short speech is unsurpassed.
Because it is blessedly short, it is possible for school children to memorize it—and even to learn the meaning of all the words. Back when I was in school, I memorized the first paragraph, which has always stuck with me. I was tougher as a teacher in our homeschool, where I not only persuaded daughter Social Sphere to memorize the whole thing, but to present it at a gathering of her peers. (I memorized it along with her, which only seemed fair.)
There are several versions of the speech, handwritten by Lincoln, to different people who received them. There are the first draft, the Nicolay copy (his personal secretary); and the second draft, the Hay copy (a White House assistant), but handed over prior to the speech. The other three were all written on request afterward: the Everett copy (the other speaker at Gettysburg, whose unmemorable speech went on for a couple of hours, causing even more notice of the brevity of Lincoln); the Bancroft copy (intended to be reprinted as a fundraiser for soldiers); and the Bliss copy (replacing the Bancroft copy, which had been written on both sides, which prevented lithographic reproduction). The Bliss copy is the most “standard”—the most quoted. It is the one written in stone at the Lincoln Memorial.
Gettysburg Address, Bliss copy as two pages
There are tiny differences from one to another. Without recording devices, it’s difficult to determine exactly which words Lincoln spoke. But the ones he signed and gave as definitive, after the speech, all contain the words “under God.”
Controversy in the news of the day referred to a documentary done by Ken Burns, which included each of the living US presidents reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. All were given the Bliss copy, the standard version. They were able to read it during the recordings. But our current president chose to edit Lincoln and omit the “under God” phrase. Why? I don’t know. An error? A reading of a different version instead? Without mindreading, it’s hard to know. But it’s unfortunate that this president uses such a moment to give even more evidence of his opposition to the culture of civilization.
It is nevertheless my hope, along with Lincoln, that what we face now will not be an end to this freedom experiment: “that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
If you didn’t take a moment yesterday (or even if you did), take this opportunity to reread Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

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.


No comments:

Post a Comment