Four Score And Seventy Years Ago

Nov 19 2013 @ 8:36pm

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered a speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Ilia Blinderman flags the above video of various figures reading those famous words:

Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (whose five versions can be found here) has shown little wear since its delivery on November 19, exactly 150 years ago. While there is some evidence to suggest that the audience was initially nonplussed by the speech’s simple language and striking brevity, today Lincoln’s words are considered to be among the most finely wrought rhetoric in the Western canon: they remain accessible to all, yet seamlessly entwine the thread of equality that ran so clearly through the Declaration of Independence with the idea of the war being essential to the preservation of the Union.

I was ready to gag at some of these celebrities, but found myself unable to. The words carry them. Garry Wills’ 1992 essay, adapted from his book on the Gettysburg address, is well worth re-reading today:

Up to the Civil War “the United States” was invariably a plural noun: “The United States are a free country.” After Gettysburg it became a singular: “The United States is a free country.” This was a result of the whole mode of thinking that Lincoln expressed in his acts as well as his words, making union not a mystical hope but a constitutional reality.

When, at the end of the address, he referred to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was not, like Theodore Parker, just praising popular government as a Transcendentalist’s ideal. Rather, like Webster, he was saying that America was a people accepting as its great assignment what was addressed in the Declaration. This people was “conceived” in 1776, was “brought forth” as an entity whose birth was datable (“four score and seven years” before) and placeable (“on this continent”), and was capable of receiving a “new birth of freedom.”

Thus Abraham Lincoln changed the way people thought about the Constitution … The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it

In a 2009 essay, the historian Sean Wilentz noted a neglected 1852 speech in which Lincoln defended the Fugitive Slave Law, thus reminding us that Lincoln was foremost a politician – something that shouldn’t detract from his greatness, however:

In 1854, when Lincoln began shifting his loyalties to the anti-slavery Republican Party, the tone as well as the substance of his speeches became grander, and the casual racism receded. Lincoln evolved and grew as the Republican Party and anti-slavery public opinion in the North grew. But it is important to understand that those later pronouncements of Lincoln’s were no less political that his earlier ones, no less geared to achieving a particular political goal or set of political goals. Given the enlarged stakes of the sectional crisis and then the Civil War, Lincoln’s goals were actually more political than ever. He was a shrewd and calculating creature of politics; and he achieved historical greatness in his later years because of, and not despite, his political skills. It was the only way that anyone could have completed the momentous tasks that history, as well as his personal ambition, had handed to him. It was the only way he knew how to do anything of public importance, and the only way he cared to know.

Recent Dish on the Gettysburg Address here. For more, Google’s Cultural Institute has assembled a series of commemorative online exhibits.