Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day

My husband, a history buff, recently attended a business meeting at Gettysburg, PA, and had the opportunity to tour the battlefield. The stories he brought back of the battle and the dedication ceremony during which Lincoln gave his famous address inspired us to reread the speech, which remains a remarkable piece of writing still today, not just for its message, but for its brevity and beauty.

The battle—which started on July 1, 1863, and lasted three days—resulted in more than 7500 dead (think: 7500 bodies on the ground in the heat of July). The townspeople were left to cope with this tragic aftermath, and they purchased the land to create a cemetery to honor the dead.

Inviting Lincoln to speak at the dedication ceremony in November was an afterthought (check here to search* for a copy of the letter Lincoln received asking him to participate; use the keyword “Gettysburg address”). The featured guest was Edward Everett, a man considered the best orator of his time. In fact, the ceremony was postponed from a September dedication date to the November 19 date because Everett said he couldn’t write a proper speech in time. No wonder he needed so much time…his speech was TWO HOURS long and ran 13, 607 words (I’m guessing about 50 d-s typewritten pages today).

According to Wikipedia, here’s how Everett’s speech began:
Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.
Two hours later, the end:

But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.
Compare this to Lincoln’s masterpiece (he didn’t actually write it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up…though I feel better knowing he worked on the speech, and knowing that such polished writing wasn’t slapped down off the cuff):

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.
Ten sentences.
Two hundred seventy-two words.
Two minutes. (Not even enough time to get a photo of him speaking.)

Search* here for the Nicolay copy, which is considered to be the first of the five copies written in Lincoln’s hand, a draft given to one of his two private secretaries. The Bliss copy is considered the definitive version; Lincoln wrote it out for charitable purposes in 1864, and it’s the only one he signed. This copy is displayed in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House.

Happy Fourth of July!

*Note: Unfortunately this site seems to create only a temporary file, so requires a search every time.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.