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[Chalice] Perspectives on a Universally Known Masterpiece [Chalice]

Presented March 23, 2014, by Dr. Dave Costigan

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For a number of years I have been presenting the idea that Lincoln's great importance to American history is that he is the "second founder" of the United States, as a nation without slavery. I seldom get asked to go into detail, but I could point to the movie, "Lincoln" as representative of this premise as he labored and connived for the 13th Amendment ending slavery. Another milestone in the second founder idea is his speech at Gettysburg on Nov. 19th, 1863, where he articulated the premises or principles of the re-founded nation.

The Lincoln who came to Quincy in October 1858 had a reputation as a witty, engaging, effective, and provocative stump speaker, but as President he renounced the stump or extemporaneous speeches as only likely to cause difficulty or embarrassment, that is, he might say the wrong thing. Compared to the modern day, Lincoln's exposure to the public was fairly limited. My research in local papers on the Civil War period surprised me about how seldom Lincoln is mentioned, i.e. often days on end.

Surprisingly Lincoln rarely gave speeches as President. He had a bad experience in Chicago in 1858 and vowed to himself he would not speak extemporaneously again. Groups came to the White House and asked him "to say a few words" and he would respond that he was not prepared. So when he did speak, he had planned exactly what he wanted to say. Illustrations: the First Inaugural (his reassurance to the South and the 8 states that had already seceded that he was no threat to them,) that turned out to be a huge burden on him, because he vowed not to touch slavery and promised enforcement of the onerous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The movie "12 Years a Slave" depicts what could happen to a free black man, if someone testified that he was his escaped slave. Lincoln wrote Annual Messages to Congress, currently called the State of the Union and mandated by the Constitution. These he wrote, but they were read for him by a congressional agent.) So there is no doubt there was ample preparation for Gettysburg, even though he was the last person invited. David Wills, a Gettysburg attorney was the organizer and the MC for the event. As the principal speaker, Edward Everett was invited on September 23rd to give his orations on October 23rd, but he said he could not be ready until November 19th, so Everett was the person who set the date. Lincoln was invited on November 2nd; the last person invited and then asked by Wills to make "a few appropriate remarks." That he accepted the invitation was met with surprise, almost shock by his cabinet. He had never before ventured from Washington to give a speech. Also his son Tad was seriously ill and Mary must have been distraught as their son Willie had died just over a year and a half earlier. So it must have been crucially important to Lincoln to have a say at Gettysburg and to the nation. The 272 words of the address are his testimony.

He started on his Gettysburg presentation at the White House and continued to revise and perfect his words right up to the time of presentation. The so-called Nicolay copy was the one he used making his presentation. Asked by Everett subsequently, he wrote another and ended up making five copies of the address, all tending to have slight variations. The Everett copy is in the Illinois State Historical Library. Notes he undoubtedly made unfortunately have not survived.

We know the venue and occasion: the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, over five months after the most horrific battle ever fought on this continent - with over 50,000 casualties in just three days. The cemetery itself was a work in progress and Lincoln toured the field the morning of the festivities and no doubt had a powerful emotional experience. It caused him to underline one word in his text (did). The extraordinary layout made no distinction of rank, privates and generals side by side. This is most apropos given Lincoln's remarks. The principal speaker - Edward Everett, (former congressman and senator, Gov. of Mass., President of Harvard, Secretary of State, and VP candidate in 1860) was the most noted orator in America, successor in that respect to Daniel Webster. Everett's speech lasted two hours and 8 minutes (written and memorized.) His text was on the podium but he never referred to it. Lincoln's "few appropriate remarks," came next, lasting a little over two minutes, and Lincoln held his text in his hand.

The speech - Garry Wills calls it "Words that Remade America." A thesis: what does he mean?

We all know how it started and that had its own history. He had mentioned earlier to some people that "eighty odd years ago this nation had its birth." Lincoln decided that this was how he wanted to start his speech but that this had no class so: "Four score and seven years ago." Do the math - 87 from 1863 =1776. So he dated the birth of the nation, not from the Constitution or the presidency of George Washington, but from the Declaration of Independence. The phrase he used had a precursor in Psalm 90 of the Bible: "The days of our years are three score years and ten. And if by reason of strength they be four score years." He loved reading the Bible and the psalms were a favorite. People would hear him reading aloud to himself. His speeches often had a biblical content and cadence.

The technique he used in speeches - past, present, and future. As paradigm, we have the farewell speech in Springfield. There is no mention of himself in the Gettysburg Address, uncommon in the modern age. He used "we" ten times and "us" three times. He used "nation" five times and "dedicate" six times. Two-thirds of his words were one syllable and Anglo-Saxon derivative, except for the Latinate "proposition" in the first sentence. This was a favorite idea for him, "reasoned argument" that he took from his study of Euclid, 3 centuries, BCE. The proposition he argued "was that all men are created equal." He had one ad lib, "under God" a very unusual departure for Lincoln.

The key idea- the Civil War was about liberty, and union, and human equality, so contradicted by the institution of slavery. The speech was 272 words and took a little more than two minutes to deliver. The major inaccuracy in the speech was, "The world will little note . . . what we say here." "but it can never forget what they did here." It is the other way around. The final sentence was complex composed of 82 words, "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." This was a powerful statement of what the U.S. is, namely an experiment in governance and we should note it is still an experiment in progress. And we might ask "How are we doing?"

©2014 Dr. Dave Costigan

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Costigan. Dr. Dave 2014. Perspectives on a Universally Known Masterpiece, /talks/20140323.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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