Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lincoln at Gettysburg

I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's delightful bestseller, "Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." Ms. Goodwin's retelling of the 16th President's life and administration, which focuses on how Mr. Lincoln managed to build a functioning cabinet dominated by those who wanted his job and were quite certain they deserved it, makes for a magnificent read.

I just reached the point in the story at which Mr. Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Reading that speech again in light of the historical context which Ms. Goodwin so aptly sets up renewed my own understanding of why it is the greatest speech in American history. At a time when speeches frequently went on for hours, the President provided in two short minutes a statement of purpose for both the country and for the war.

Addressing an audience at a battlefield filled with memories of carnage and death, Mr. Lincoln filled the speech with life, beginning it with a birth ("brought forth... a new nation, conceived in liberty") and ending it with a "rebirth of freedom." The new birth, he declared, provided the hope of something that would never perish (again, in contrast to the reminders of death all around) from the earth ("government of the people, by the people, for the people"). It is for that hope of new birth (grounded in the proposition of the earlier conception) that "these honored dead... gave the last full measure of devotion." Because of the greatness of both that sacrifice and that hope, we are told it is "for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us."

Is there another example in English of anyone saying so much in so little space? What a remarkable speech!


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