For many reasons, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has been consecrated as one of the great speeches in American history. Certainly the physical surroundings of dead and decaying bodies and the context of the crucial point in American history add to the grandeur of it all. The “larger than life” character of Abraham Lincoln, with his hat, beard, and smirk don’t hurt either. But the speech itself contains enough emotion to stir up immense patriotism, anguish, and resolve within even the hardest of hearts. Is it simply the emotion that this speech stirs up that has placed it on so high a pedestal, or is there more to it? One benefit of history is the ability to look back into the past and gauge and judge how certain events helped shape the course of the future; how they shaped the present in which we live today. When we put the Gettysburg Address against this measuring stick it towers over some of the great speeches, people, and places in all of American history, but why? There are many explainable reasons for this, much more than can be afforded today. A full exposition on the greatness of this short speech would require its own library, indeed it cannot fully be explained in one single paper. However, a concise explanation of a few of the reasons are feasible and this is the goal: to explain the greatness of this speech by looking at only a few elements of its greatness. For, if greatness can be recognized and explained in a few simple elements, then perhaps no more justification is needed. The two elements examined will be its inspiration, in spite of its shortness and simplicity, and the fact that it was the bridge that connected the America that was to the America that is today. Even today, one hundred and fifty years later, the Gettysburg Address remains one of the most inspirational speeches in American history. In this simple aspect greatness is plainly evident. No other trait is needed in a speech for it to be great so long as inspires others to greatness. The inspiration invoked by the Address does not stem from one singular component of what inspires people, rather it inspires from many different components. For one, history is used to inspire and call citizens to action. The very first words in the Address, “Fourscore and seven years ago our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…” cause one to remember back to the Revolution and the call for action there. (Cummings and Dolbeare, 2010, pg. 276) It causes one to remember the dedication and resolve of George Washington, the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, and the sacrifice of men throughout the colonies. Secondly, the element of sacrifice is used. Standing in the midst of thousands of American corpses, from North and South alike, Lincoln speaks of their sacrifice to their country. In his Address, Lincoln says that “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.” (Cummings and Dolbeare, 2010, pg. 276) Personal, selfless sacrifice is one of the most powerful motivators and means of inspiration known to man. This alone is enough to motivate many a man to action. Even more effective still, though, is speaking of personal sacrifice for the cause of liberty and preservation in the presence of those who lay dead as evidence of that sacrifice. With this as his motivator, Lincoln could have very well brought scores of men to the American Army who may have never served otherwise. This Address is made greater still by the fact that it is so short. It took Lincoln less than three minutes to make his speech, and it was just over two hundred and seventy words in length. As the source of much inspiration to millions of people, its length is its strongest proponent of its own greatness. Now, the thought must be occurring that in order for it to be so short and yet so inspirational, it must surely contain a high degree of complexity. The speech must use some of the greatest words that compose the English language. Yet again, here is another testament of the greatness of this speech: it is astoundingly simple. Of its simplicity, H. Mark Roelofs writes that “it has a very high proportion of single syllable words, only a few of three, only two of four. And all its words are everyday, familiar ones. The result is an address so brief and simple that even inarticulate children are asked to memorize it word for word.” (Roelofs, 1978, pg. 229) How incredible this speech is! A speech that is made in the presence of some of the highest-ranking government officials, a speech that inspires those soldiers who fought in the battle, a speech that brings people to tears and causes them to fight for what they believe in, is so simple that it can be memorized by inarticulate children. This is the greatest testament of its greatness. Can another speech be recalled that is so short, so simple, and yet so incredibly inspirational? A couple of testimonies have been compiled by Glenn LaFantasie which are important in understanding the emotion invoked and the inspiration caused by Lincoln’s short, simple Address. LaFantasie speaks of two people who were present at the Address, the first being an Army Captain who participated in the Battle of Gettysburg and the second being the editor of a local newspaper. He says that “an army captain sobbed openly and then, according to a reporter who saw him, lifted his eyes to heaven and in low and solemn tones exclaimed 'God Almighty, Bless Abraham Lincoln!’” (LaFantasie, 1995, pg. 84) Of the latter, he writes that “as George William Curtis, editor of Harper's Weekly, put it, “The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart. They cannot be read, even, without kindling emotion." (LaFantasie, 1995, pg. 84) Horatio King, who heard Lincoln deliver the address, expressed it simply but passionately. "My God," he said, "it was so impressive!" (LaFantasie, 1995, pg. 84) The other testament to the greatness of this speech is found in its raw historical significance. While there are many reasons that explain why the Civil War occurred, there is one thing that can be said of how it changed the future of America. The Civil War, in many ways, led America from the past to the future. The mindset of many American’s in the 1850’s was not that different from that mindset of Americans in the 1770’s. The Civil War was a clash of the old against the new, even if this was not realized at the time. America needed to progress, but the way of thinking for the average American in the years leading up to the Civil War was not prepared or ready for this change. The most obvious example of this point is demonstrated in the institution of slavery. America was on the brink of the Industrial Revolution and slavery was, if nothing else, inefficient. Using slave labor was simply not as efficient as it once was, given the technological advances. Yet many Americans were unwilling to admit the inefficiencies of their system, much less the injustice and inequality inherent in that system. Women’s rights make for another excellent example. The times were changing – women were no longer seen in the same light they used to be, even from the time of the Constitution. In order for women to be equal with men, they must be given the right to vote. Yet again, Americans were not willing to acquiesce to this change and fought against it vehemently. These are only two examples, and these two were drawn upon to highlight the necessity of change in many aspects, but the unwillingness of many Americans to submit to these changes. Abraham Lincoln saw the need for this change, and this is very clear in his Gettysburg Address. In many ways, in can be argued, and often is, that the Gettysburg Address is the very embodiment of what America is to become in the future. Lincoln speaks almost prophetically about what America is to become, and must become, in the future, and how that is different from the past. Roelofs highlights this point by breaking down Lincoln’s Address into the sections: addressing the past, the present, and the future. He notes that the amount of time Lincoln spent addressing the future of America was much greater than that spent on the present or the past. The reason for this is quite simple: if he addresses the future of America, it contains what action is necessary in the present to accomplish the goals of the future. Roelofs says, “how important the future was in Lincoln's mind can be measured by looking back at the Address again, noting that its three paragraphs are devoted serially to past, present, and future, and observing that the third paragraph is much the longest. For Lincoln, as for the Hebrew writers of long ago, it is the future which finally defines the meaning of the present as it emerges from the remembered past; it is the future which demands most force fully what business we must be about in the now of our lives.” (Roelofs, 1978, pg. 231) Lincoln speaks several times about the future of America. He says “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.” (Cummings and Dolbeare, 2010, pg. 276) And that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” (Cummings and Dolbeare, 2010, pg. 276) Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address single-handedly catapults the minds of Americans into what their future must be like; what they must do now, in the present, to attain what they desire and need for the future. There was a large discrepancy in what the Declaration of Independence says about freedom and what Americans were doing to prohibit certain demographics in the country from experiencing that freedom. The exact same thing happened in the century previous, and bloodshed was the result. The colonists felt that there freedom was being infringed upon by the British, and the only way to attain what they wanted was through war. On many different fronts, Americans felt that their God-given right of independence and liberty were being infringed upon. The South by the North, the black by the white, and the woman by the man are the three biggest examples of this. Lincoln, with his immortal speech, single-handedly catapults Americans everywhere to the freedoms that they would enjoy in the future. He conjures those who are fighting to continue and summons those who are not to do so. The Gettysburg Address, and the bold proclamations therein would lead to the suffrage movement of the 1920’s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Address, at minimum, can be credited with being the sling that casts the heaviest stone in this direction. LaFantasie understands and communicates this connection very well when he says that “at Gettysburg, his address looked back to those sentiments, which were "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," and then looked forward with hope that those sentiments, those old traditions, could be understood in a new light and could, through a rededication of the American people, produce "a new birth of freedom" in the nation that would be as dramatic and as transforming as the spiritual regeneration of a camp meeting or a great awakening.” (LaFantasie, 1995, pg. 88) The greatness of this speech is evident in the fact that it changed the very course of American history. Without this speech, America’s economic, political and social landscape could be much, much different today. LaFantasie even goes so far as to call the Gettysburg Address the bridge between America’s past and the future; the present. He talks about how the Civil War, among other things, did much to build this bridge, but even this was not enough; something more was needed to complete the bridge. He says, “but something else was still required to bridge the gap between the racial oppression of slavery and the promise of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence. The Gettysburg Address was that bridge.” (LaFantasie, 1995, pg. 89) Without the Gettysburg Address, the United States of America looks much differently today, and not for the better. Lincoln has rightfully cemented his place, and the place of this, his greatest speech, in the hearts and minds of all Americans. He took the ideas of the Founding Fathers and made them tangible, historically evident characteristics on the American landscape. Lincoln took steps that even the Founding Fathers, those who composed the Declaration of Independence and eloquently composed the equality of all men, were not willing to take to ensure that freedom would be available to all demographics. This is the single greatest contribution of the Gettysburg Address to all people, and the heaviest weight on the scales of persuasion in favor of hallowing this speech. William Lambert says of the speech that “the Address has been so long and so generally accepted as the highest expression of American oratory…” (Lambert, 1909, pgs. 391-92) The Gettysburg Address is the measuring bar by which all speeches are measured against, and few have risen to the occasion. The greatness that is apparent in the Gettysburg Address is found in its plainness yet profoundness; its shortness yet strength; and most importantly, it’s impact on Americans. Most specifically oppressed Americans who found solace, comfort, and resolve through the words of its brilliant author, Abraham Lincoln.
NG, LR, NCU, USAR
My collection of personal papers written over the years