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On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From a platform set some distance away from the ongoing burial operations, Lincoln addressed a crowd of 15,000 people.
The president spoke for three minutes. His speech contained just 272 words, including the observation that the "world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Yet Lincoln's Gettysburg Address endures. In the view of historian James McPherson, it stands as "the world's foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them."
Over the years, historians, biographers, political scientists, and rhetoricians have written countless words about Lincoln's brief speech. The most comprehensive study remains Garry Wills's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon & Schuster, 1992). In addition to examining the political circumstances and oratorical antecedents of the speech, Wills dispels several myths, including these:
- The silly but persistent myth is that Lincoln jotted his brief remarks on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg… In fact, two people testified that Lincoln's speech was mainly composed in Washington, before he left for Gettysburg.
- Though we call Lincoln's text the Gettysburg Address, that title clearly belongs to Edward Everett. Lincoln's contribution, labeled "remarks," was intended to make the dedication formal (somewhat like ribbon-cutting at modern "openings"). Lincoln was not expected to speak at length.
- Some later accounts would emphasize the length of the main speech Everett's two-hour oration, as if that were an ordeal or an imposition on the audience. But in the mid-19th century, a talk of several hours was customary and expected.
- Everett's voice was sweet and expertly modulated; Lincoln's was high to the point of shrillness, and his Kentucky accent offended some eastern sensibilities. But Lincoln derived an advantage from his high tenor voice… He knew a good deal about rhythmic delivery and meaningful inflections. Lincoln's text was polished, his delivery emphatic, he was interrupted by applause five times.
- The myth that Lincoln was disappointed in the result-that he told the unreliable Ward Lamon that his speech, like a bad plow, "won't scour"-has no basis. He had done what he wanted to do.
Above all it's worth noting that Lincoln composed the address without the aid of speechwriters or advisers. As Fred Kaplan recently observed in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (HarperCollins, 2008), "Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached."
Words mattered to Lincoln-their meanings, their rhythms, their effects. On February 11, 1859, two years before he became president, Lincoln delivered a lecture to the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College. His topic was "Discoveries and Inventions":
Writing-the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye-is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it-great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions…
Its utility may be conceived, by the reflection that, to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.
It's Kaplan's belief that Lincoln was "the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders."
To re-experience Lincoln's words, try reading aloud his two best-known speeches:
Afterward, if you'd like to test your familiarity with Lincoln's rhetoric, take our Reading Quiz on the Gettysburg Address.