Seven score and seven years ago, yesterday, Abraham Lincoln made his immortal speech at Gettysburg. Beginning with ‘Four score and seven years ago…’ that brief address has been carved into the tablet of great orations.
And yet Lincoln’s was not the main speech of the occasion. Those organising the consecration of the cemetery for the men who fell in the civil war at Gettysburg had invited not Lincoln, but the orator Edward Everett, a former US Senator and Congressman, Governor of Massachusetts, Secretary of State, Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard and President of Harvard University, to give the main ‘Gettysburg address’. Everett’s 13,607-word oration began with words rehearsed in the school of declamation:
“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labours of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice…”
Everett spoke for one hour and 57 minutes without faltering. When he finished, he was heartily applauded. Carl Sandburg writes in his great biography of the President, “… Lincoln knew when the moment drew near for him to speak. He took out his own manuscript from a coat pocket, put on his steel-lowed glasses, stirred in his chair, looked over the manuscript, and put it back in his pocket.” And when he was called, rose, and holding in one hand the two sheets of paper, made his ‘Dedicatory Remarks’. A mere ten sentences long, they took no more than two to three minutes to read. So brief, they are worth reproducing in full :
“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 battle-field 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 honoured 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.”
Sandburg says the applause that followed was “formal, a tribute to the occasion”. On resuming his seat Lincoln told the person next to him “…that speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.”
Newspapers were divided on its impact. The Chicago Times, no supporter of the President wrote, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dish watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” But the Chicago Tribune reported “The dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.”
Why has the speech so possessed the human imagination across the world and over the decades?
At a purely textual level this is because it is a model of concision, easy to remember and easier to recite both on account of its brevity and its cadences. Reaching and staying at middle flight, Lincoln is neither breathless, nor makes his listeners so. He wafts, he does not soar. He uses rhythm, not rhapsody. Rhythm is typically achieved by measured repetition. He repeats the word ‘nation’ four times. It becomes, in fact, the speech’s refrain. ‘Dedicate’ occurs as often, followed by ‘devotion’. The three words — nation, dedication and devotion — form the speech’s triad. On their firm pedestal, Lincoln seats the power of his speech. In the final sentence — which is also the longest — comes the speech’s most famous repetition — ‘people’ occurs in a threesome fluency that versifies prose and defies decay. But all this is dry dissection.
Lincoln’s speech is not a text to be analysed for its literary devices, accidental or deliberate. It is a living, pulsing utterance to be experienced.
The phrase ‘All men are created equal’ was known to Americans since the time of Jefferson’s famous proposition. It was cherished by those Americans who believed the Negro slave to be a human being and hated by those who did not. In invoking that idea and that belief, Lincoln was ringing a bell everyone had heard before.
It feels good to hear a known sound intoned. But then he went on to do something altogether unexpected, different. The war was far from over. In fact, even as he listened to Everett’s prolonged cataract of eloquence, Lincoln was getting reports on the civil war’s progress, one of which told him of Grant’s preparing for a big battle at Chattanooga. Incidentally, he was also getting reports on his son Tad’s grave illness, back at White House. Emancipation was at risk. Union was in peril. Death was at hand.
In those circumstances, what would a chief executive say ? That Emancipation is at risk, Union is in peril and Death is aboard?
Yes, a chief executive might. Not Old Abe.
He would call for something new, not moan. I referred to three words that occur repeatedly in the speech. They are, in themselves, ordinary words. But there is another word, also ordinary, that he uses twice, with telling effect. And it is that which, almost without being noticed, makes the Gettysburg address what it is. The word is : ‘new’. It occurs routinely in the first sentence and alchemically in the last. ‘…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.’
Nehru’s ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech, starting like Lincoln’s, with ‘…years ago’ and climaxing its key sentence with ‘…life and freedom’ invokes Gettysburg magically.
Since every society, every nation, in every epoch has known freedom to be won only to be lost, gained only to be traduced, enjoyed but only by some, and since people everywhere and in all ages have seen their trustees become tyrannical and their delegates turn despotic, the human breast has longed for a new birth of freedom.
For as long as the world has people that need a new birth of freedom, what Lincoln said five score and forty seven years ago, will continue to startle the deprived with hope and scour deprivers with guilt.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor The views expressed by the author are personal.