Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Four Score and 70 Years Ago

The president's speech followed a two–hour address so
photographers could be forgiven for thinking they had
plenty of time to prepare. But Lincoln's speech was so
brief it was over before photographers could get ready.

"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."

Abraham Lincoln
Nov. 19, 1863

In my experience, days that have truly historic significance rarely begin with any clue that something special is going to happen.

Take Sept. 11, 2001, for example. When I think of that day, I think of how truly ordinary it was when I drove to work that morning. There was no hint that anything unusual was about to happen — until the radio mentioned an apparent airplane crash at the World Trade Center.

I'm not old enough to remember the day John F. Kennedy was shot, but I have read a lot about it, and the accounts I have read suggest that there was no indication that morning that anything was going to happen — at lunchtime or any other time.

Sometimes big events are anticipated, but nobody really knows when they will happen — like the fall of the Berlin wall or Richard Nixon's resignation.

Sometimes, of course, there is advance notice that something historic will happen at a certain time on a certain day. When I was a child, I followed the Apollo 11 moon landing — as did everyone, frankly — with great interest. And, if you followed their mission schedule, you knew when the astronauts were scheduled to land on the moon and take their first steps. There was no element of surprise, just the sensation that all the people in the country, if not the world, were holding their collective breath waiting for the Eagle to land or Neil Armstrong to take that giant leap for mankind.

Even in the annals of unexpectedly important events, the Gettysburg Address, which Abraham Lincoln delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., 150 years ago today, holds a unique place in American history.

(Few speeches have begun as memorably: "Four score and seven years ago ...")

It was in that speech that Lincoln re–defined the objective of the Civil War. It began as an effort to keep the Union together. But, after Lincoln gave this speech, it was about abolishing slavery. That was what he meant when he spoke of a "new birth of freedom."

It had been the official policy of the Union since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but it became the focal point of the war effort after Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg.

As I wrote last summer on the 150th anniversary of the start of the battle, I remember when my classmates and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address and deliver it in class. I took my turn at reciting the speech, just like everyone else, but I don't know if I gave much thought to the words or what they meant.

I don't remember it as some kind of epiphany. I didn't feel anything unique when I was called to the front of the room to deliver the speech. Well, my stomach was a little queasy ...

Heck, I was a teenager. I was nervous about having to stand in front of a room full of my peers and say anything. But I committed it to memory, and I recited it, just as everyone else did.

Years later, I could still recall all the words upon hearing a single sentence, even a single phrase, from the speech. And then the talk about a rebirth of freedom had more of an impact on me.

I realized that Lincoln was not talking about the past, about the sacrifices that the soldiers on both sides had made at Gettysburg. He had turned his attention to the future. Like spouses renewing their wedding vows and re–pledging themselves to each other, with a deeper understanding of what the commitment meant, Lincoln urged the people of his own time and the generations to come to periodically renew their commitment to freedom.

But Lincoln's actual words were "a new birth of freedom," and I interpret that to mean an expansion of freedom to those who had not experienced it — primarily the slaves. Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation; the Gettysburg Address confirmed it as an objective of the war.

As I said before, that wasn't the objective when the war began. But it became one 150 years ago today.

Maybe that is the special quality of the Gettysburg Address. It had the power to move people at the time it was delivered — well, except for Lincoln — and it can have the same influence in a sort of delayed reaction, kind of like those time–release capsules you take when you're sick.

Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln reported that the president was not pleased with his speech — which was a rather last–minute assignment. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, one of the great American orators of the 19th century, was the featured speaker, and he spoke for two hours. Lincoln followed with his two–minute address.

"That speech won't scour," Lincoln told his bodyguard after he concluded and sat down. "It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed."

To understand what Lincoln meant, it is necessary to understand something about the language of the farmers of Lincoln's boyhood. "When wet soil stuck to the mold board of a plow, they said it didn't 'scour,' " Sandburg explained.

Some of the newspapers of his day agreed with him.

"The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish–watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States," wrote the Chicago Times.

(The Times no longer exists, but a Pennsylvania newspaper recently felt compelled to retract its 150–year–old negative review of the speech.)

But some did not.

The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, for example, wrote that few who read Lincoln's words would do so "without a moistening of the eye and a swelling of the heart."

Everett himself, in a letter to Lincoln, wrote, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as close to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

"Lincoln had translated the story of his country and the meaning of the war into words and ideas accessible to every American," wrote historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"The child who would sleeplessly rework his father's yarns into tales comprehensible to any boy had forged for his country an ideal of its past, present and future that would be recited and memorized by students forever."

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