Today is the 146th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and in this, his bicentennial year, I gave myself a little assignment that I would encourage anyone else to take up, as well. In fact, I’d be happy to share them on here. The assignment? In 272 words*, the same economical number that Lincoln used in his address, try to encapsulate what it means to you, or what you think it means to the country. If I kept working till I got it just right, the anniversary would come and go. So here’s my stab at it . . .
One hundred forty-six years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln stood up at Gettysburg and forever recalibrated our national compass. He rode a chestnut horse to the new national cemetery. One witness remarked that his pants, hitched up, revealed “homemade gray socks” that hardly fit the occasion.
But the words he spoke were not homespun. They embraced echoes of Pericles and Psalms, drew from Daniel Webster and Lincoln’s own trembling experience.
When he walked across the platform that day, his footsteps audible to a silent crowd that had just heard a two-hour oration, he spoke so briefly that no camera caught the moment. But in it, he swung the lens of this country’s conscience back toward liberty and equality, toward the spirit that formed our Constitution, and away from its cold letter, which can divide us.
He did it in 272 words. Yet today, entire books struggle to explain the significance of what he said. The French constitution borrowed from it. Schoolchildren still memorize it.
The night before the address, a crowd gathered outside Lincoln’s window. He knew a word was expected of him, but said, “I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.”
For Lincoln, who was poet and politician, words were precious and powerful.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln not only gave voice to the force of our founding Ideas, but endowed their expression with a new energy. He not only spoke of “a new birth of freedom,” but incarnated one through the power of his words.
May that power, like these words, not perish from the earth.
For further reading, a couple of recommendations.
The best short look at the day at Gettysburg I’ve read is from Doris Kears Goodwin’s well-known “Team of Rivals,” pages 583 to 587. From it came the details in my short piece about Lincolns spectacles, his socks and his footsteps on the platform.
The best longer treatment is, undoubtedly, Garry Wills’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.”
*While there are 272 words in the most-cited version of the Gettysburg Address, we cannot be sure exactly how many words he uttered from the platform that day. The five copies we have of the address differ slightly from each other.