Seven score and five years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. A common myth about the famous speech is that Lincoln pulled what students call an "all-nighter", wrote it at the last minute, perhaps even on the back of an envelope, gave it to only a smattering of politely indifferent applause from an audience that had expected more, and, after returning to his seat, conceded to his friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon that it was a bad speech. In an important biography of the speech, entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg, historian Garry Wills positively waylays these myths. The speech, Wills demonstrates, was almost certainly crafted well in advance, and every word was precisely chosen, with Lincoln drawing inspiration from the major intellectual movements of the day. It was neither expected to be longer than it was, nor was it, on the whole, badly received.
The complete speech is here, and if you haven't read it, you should. It's about 280 words long (there are a few versions, with very small differences between them) and it will take you about two minutes to get through.
Now there are speeches, and there are speeches. Like all great works of literature — and great works of literature needn't be long — the Gettysburg Address rewards repeated readings. It reminds us, too, how much we have lost, for it draws into the full light of day the banal, consensus-seeking sloganeering of contemporary political speeches, and makes one pity all the more the political sheep who will bleat at anything mouthed by the mammal their party calls its leader.
One shudders to think what modern speechwriters might have done with it. "Now, after four score and seven years, change has come to America" or perhaps, "gave the last full measure of their devotion for our children, and for our children's children", not to mention the predictable, "that that nation, from the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, to the mountains of Colorado, from the cotton fields of South Carolina, to the fisheries of Maine, might live", and of course the obligatory "but, in a larger sense, we cannot and we shall not dedicate, we cannot and we shall not consecrate, we cannot, and we shall not hallow this ground."
Of course, Lincoln knew how to play a crowd, too. Consider the curious case of the words "under God", which some versions of the speech omit. Secularists sometimes claim that the version without them is the one Lincoln actually delivered, but they ignore the fact that Lincoln's other famous speeches always incorporate references to God and faith. I said "play a crowd" because many of Lincoln's biographers agree that he was the most irreligious of the presidents, but he also recognized that Americans' estimation of the religiosity of their leaders can make or break political careers.
Moreover, some of the speech is downright false. Government of, by, and for the people would not have vanished from the Earth had the Confederacy won the war, although H.L. Mencken's suggestion that it was the Confederates who were the ones actually fighting for self-determination conveniently ignores the forty percent of southerners who, in 1861, had no legal right to self-determination of any kind. Never forget that "states rights" was and remains a code word for the right to hold other human beings in perpetual servitude.
Among the presidents there have been moral and intellectual giants, and moral and intellectual microbes. Very few escape scandal or the need to make ethical compromises that you and I would find appalling to even consider. Barack Obama will have to decide whether or not to extend political, economic, and military support for major human rights abusers who happen to be American allies; he will have to weigh when, if ever, he would be willing to unleash the forces of nuclear armageddon; if he escapes scandal, he will be one president picked out of twenty. Who would want such a job? We have reason to be suspicious of anyone who does.
Lincoln, too had flaws and made his compromises. Most troubling, to our modern sensibilities, was his attitude toward race. He was born February 12, 1809 — the same day as Charles Darwin — and he retained many of the prejudices expected of his generation (and indeed, of most generations until our own). But we are too quick, I think, to condemn past progressives for what they didn't do, rather than to recognize them for what they did. Lincoln did something that none of his predecessors did, and which none of his successors would have done for a very long time if he had not. He struck the blow that ended the slavery in the United Sates. The Emancipation Proclamation, which preceded the Gettysburg Address by nearly a year, was imperfect, but it could not have been otherwise, for the Constitution did not grant the President the authority to free slaves. Lincoln issued it nonetheless, knowing full well it would be the most unpopular act ever undertaken by a President, that it would foreclose all possibility of negotiated settlement in the Civil War, that it might further divide the Union, and that it would imperil his chances of victory in the coming presidential election. It did all those things, and cynics note that, initially at least, it freed no slaves at all. But by the spring of 1865, under its terms, the advancing union armies had already freed 1.5 million slaves, and it was the immediate cause of the greatest act of human emancipation in history at war's end – an emancipation to be finalized with the passage of the 13th amendment.
In 1963, when the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation was being celebrated at the Lincoln Memorial, JFK, invited to speak, declined to do so, afraid of losing southern votes in the forthcoming election. Who has greater moral courage - the President who actually issued the Emancipation Proclamation, or the one who declined to speak about it, a hundred years later?
Historians claim that we study the past in order to know how to act in the present, in the face of renewed crises that resemble those faced before. But the problem is that historians themselves seldom agree on what the lessons of the past are, and so it is difficult to see how, precisely, history can be a guide to action. It may be that the lessons of the past are of a more general kind. In the case of great presidents and great speeches, they remind us that greatness is possible, and that citizens of democracies today should expect nothing less from our own leaders.