Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Abraham Lincolns Gettysburg Address, Facts and Myths

Abraham Lincolns Gettysburg Address, Facts and Myths On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a few appropriate remarks at the dedication of Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From a platform set some distance away from the ongoing burial operations, Lincoln addressed a crowd of 15,000 people. The president spoke for three minutes. His speech contained just 272 words, including the observation that the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here. Yet Lincolns Gettysburg Address endures. In the view of historian James McPherson, it stands as the worlds foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them. Over the years, historians, biographers, political scientists, and rhetoricians have written countless words about Lincolns brief speech. The most comprehensive study remains Garry Willss Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon Schuster, 1992). In addition to examining the political circumstances and oratorical antecedents of the speech, Wills dispels several myths, including these: The silly but persistent myth is that [Lincoln] jotted his brief remarks on the back of an envelope [while  riding the train  to  Gettysburg]. . . . In fact, two people testified that Lincolns speech was mainly composed in Washington, before he left for Gettysburg.Though we call Lincolns text the Gettysburg Address, that title clearly belongs to [Edward] Everett. Lincolns contribution, labeled remarks, was intended to make the dedication formal (somewhat like ribbon-cutting at modern openings). Lincoln was not expected to speak at length.Some later accounts would emphasize the length of the main speech [Everetts two-hour oration], as if that were an ordeal or an imposition on the audience. But in the mid-19th century, a talk of several hours was customary and expected.Everetts voice was sweet and expertly modulated; Lincolns was high to the point of shrillness, and his Kentucky accent offended some eastern sensibilities. But Lincoln derived an advantage from his high tenor voic e. . . . He knew a good deal about rhythmic delivery and meaningful inflections. Lincolns text was polished, his delivery emphatic, he was interrupted by applause five times. [T]he myth that Lincoln was disappointed in the result- that he told the unreliable [Ward] Lamon that his speech, like a bad plow, wont scour- has no basis. He had done what he wanted to do. Above all its worth noting that Lincoln composed the address without the aid of speechwriters or advisers. As Fred Kaplan recently observed in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (HarperCollins, 2008), Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached. Words mattered to Lincoln- their meanings, their rhythms, their effects. On February 11, 1859, two years before he became president, Lincoln delivered a lecture to the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College. His topic was Discoveries and Inventions: Writing- the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye- is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it- great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. . . .Its utility may be conceived, by the reflection that, to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it. Its Kaplans belief that Lincoln was the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders. To re-experience Lincolns words, try reading aloud his two best-known speeches: The Gettysburg AddressThe Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln Afterward, if youd like to test your familiarity with Lincolns rhetoric, take our Reading Quiz on the Gettysburg Address.

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