Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address a reminder of substance

The Lincoln Memorial at night in Washington, Jan. 4, 2009.



How well do you know your famous speeches?

Match these speech excerpts with the people who said them:

1. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

2. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ “

3. “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.”

4. “We talk a great deal about patriotism. What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility which will enable America to remain master of her power — to walk with it in serenity and wisdom, with self-respect and the respect of all mankind; a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

5. “For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart.”

6. “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”

7. “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do.”

8. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ “

9. “This is the great danger America faces. That we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual. Each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?”

10. “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

11. “I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

12. “I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find; maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

13. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

14. “To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men!”

15. “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true.”

16. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

1. Patrick Henry
2. Winston Churchill
3. Susan B. Anthony
4. Adlai Stevenson
5. Pericles
6. Franklin D. Roosevelt
7. Mother Theresa
8. Martin Luther King Jr.
9. Barbara C. Jordan
10. John F. Kennedy
11. Sojourner Truth
12. Chief Joseph
13. Nelson Mandela
14. Cesar Chavez
15. Barack Obama
16. Abraham Lincoln

The man who preceded the president that day spoke for two hours, a speech of 13,607 words. He gave a noble speech, as befit a man who earned the title “orator,” recounting then-recent history, mourning the dead, encouraging the living.

“God bless the Union,” he said, “it is dearer to us for the blood of brave men which has been shed in its defense.” Finishing, Edward Everett — who had served as U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. senator, governor of Massachusetts and president of Harvard University — ceded the podium to the lanky rail splitter from Illinois.

Both men were there to honor the dead, but the president had been invited almost as an afterthought, a mere 17 days before the ceremony.

That afternoon, Thursday, Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln faced a divided nation still at war.

An estimated 15,000 people had come to the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. At that place, from July 1–3, 1863, about 172,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia fought the Battle of Gettysburg. More than 7,500 soldiers died in the battle, which turned the tides of the Civil War in favor of the Union.

Despite this hard-won turn, it weighed heavy on the mind of every citizen that more than 250,000 people had died in this country’s bloodiest war. The nation and its people were suffering.

Lincoln faced the audience: “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.”

His speech was 273 words.

The next day, Everett wrote to Lincoln, “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Today, 147 years later, we know Lincoln’s words. We remember them, feeling just as keenly today “the last full measure of devotion” as when the words were uttered. They define American patriotism. They mean something.

Which brings us to the cacophony.

Now, we live in a flurry of words, a storm cloud, a blizzard, the shadow of a rogue wave. It’s constant, hysterical, static and the words never cease, shouting from ten thousand channels and an infinite Internet, braying, tweeting, bleating out through the mega-conductor of modern life.

But where are the words that mean something?

Where are the words we’ll remember from people trying to shout the loudest? When the tweets, RSS feeds and constant, frantic updates are a faded binary memory in shades of ones and zeros, when the 24-hour blather-o-matic cycle is stored on a hard drive somewhere, what will remain?

“Longer than deeds, liveth the word,” wrote Pindar, a fifth century B.C. Greek poet.

The thoughtful words, the measured words, the considered words. There is strength in those words.

Yet here’s Twitter. According to Chief Operating Officer Dick Costolo, in April there were 180 million Twitter visitors per month and 55 million tweets sent per day by 105 million registered users.

Several months later, it was estimated 65 million tweets were being sent every day, and 190 million monthly visitors to see them.

And those tweets? Around 140 words or less, fish in a barrel for any hand-wringers bemoaning the content and depth of modern communication. But these words are there and then they’re gone, nothing more than cotton candy, diaphanous and untethered words that dissolve and float away.

A Thursday tweet from author Paulo Coelho: “We are born with the fear of falling & the fear of loud noises. All other fears are acquired (a friend tells me).” Which is wonderful. Deep. Thought-provoking. Thank you. Aaaand… delete.

So, we are a people with an arsenal of 400,000 words (in the English language alone) and seemingly unlimited channels, and we struggle — to self-define, perhaps, or establish identity entirely. To carve a niche. To make money. To make sense of the whole thing.

We do this, and yet there’s a subconscious sense of tossing those words into the void. We talk too much, the whole “sound and fury, signifying nothing” problem.

“There are many things of a very affecting nature, which can seldom occur in the reality, but the words that represent them often do,” wrote Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, “and thus they have an opportunity of making a deep impression and taking root in the mind, whilst the idea of the reality was transient… Besides, many ideas have never been at all presented to the senses of any men but by words, as God, angels, devils, heaven, and hell, all of which have, however, a great influence over the passions.”

It could be argued that the saying is the thing, that there’s art in the void, that we can’t worry about the words once they’ve left our mouths (or fingers). And maybe that’s true.

But it’s obvious from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that, for him, the saying wasn’t enough. It was about the changing, the bettering, the honoring, the transcending.

“Words are deeds,” wrote Welsh poet Charles Harpur. “The words we hear/May revolutionize or rear/A mighty state.”

Through history, we have profound evidence and collective memory of words that were uttered to mean something.

“Ask not what your country can do for you.”

“I will fight no more forever.”

“A date which will live in infamy.”

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

“Ain’t I a woman?”

These are words of profound meaning, intended to express ageless feeling, or hope, or burden.

They were not uttered lightly, or frivolously. They are matchless words, words we remember.

But maybe it’s unfair to compare what we say day-to-day to words that were said in the midst of national or personal crisis, when the ground was jerking and the air was trembling, when the words were needed. It would be an unsustainable emotional pitch if lived daily.

Every word from our mouths can’t be the Gettysburg Address, then, but they can be, following the advice of Toastmasters International, said with passion. With sincerity. With a recognition that words, once said, cannot be unsaid.

Surely Lincoln hoped, that day at Gettysburg, that his listeners would feel even a portion of what he felt. He had only words to bring them to a remembrance of the sacrifice required of every citizen to sustain America.

And in the words of America’s poet Walt Whitman:

“Say on, sayers!

“Delve! mould! pile the words of the earth!

“Work on — (it is materials you must bring, not breaths;)

“Work on, age after age! nothing is to be lost.”

However quiet or seemingly small, say the words that mean something.

# # #


Delivered by Abraham Lincoln Nov. 19, 1863.

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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.


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