abraham lincoln

Honest Abe a tonic for 2016 hangover

As published in the Providence Journal, Sunday, November 20, 2016.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered by many to be the greatest political speech in American history. It was delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where four months earlier one of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most pivotal battles had been fought. In a scant 272 words, Lincoln reaffirmed the ideals of liberty and equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence and called for a new birth of freedom in the United States.

Initial reaction to the famous speech, however, was mixed.

While The Chicago Tribune wrote that “the dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of the war,” The Chicago Times opined that “the cheek of every American must tinge with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

But in Massachusetts, the Springfield Republican wrote that Lincoln’s “little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”

After studying the Gettysburg Address as a high school junior, I rediscovered it in college – in an English class, to my surprise. The speech was included in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, alongside works by Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. I was happy to now consider Lincoln for his poetics as well as his politics.

His phrasing is memorable: “Four score and seven years ago …” His parallelisms are pleasing to the ear: “… we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” His tensions are beautifully balanced: “… we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain.” With the passage of time, one line has become exquisitely ironic: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

In his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Wills writes, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address.”

Given the rancor of this year’s presidential face-off, Wills’ choice of the word “descends” was prescient. There were low points aplenty, on both sides. It’s no wonder “Saturday Night Live” notched its best ratings in years as we howled at Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.

But the election was no skit. And now, in the midst of our collective campaign hangover, I am looking for a tonic.

If I were in Washington, D.C., I’d take the Metro to Smithsonian Station, ride the escalator up to the National Mall, and head west. Approaching the Washington Monument, I’d see 50 American flags waving in the breeze. Crossing 17th Street, I’d hear fountains splashing at the World War II Memorial. And then I’d follow the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to the colonnaded temple that honors our 16th president.

Inside, I’d proceed to the south chamber and let my eyes land on the Gettysburg Address inscribed in Indiana limestone: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In the north chamber, I’d read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none … let us strive on … to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Leaving the memorial, I’d glance toward the distant Capitol. In 1861, its partially finished dome provided a symbolic backdrop at Lincoln’s first inauguration – the nation itself was a work in progress. “We are not enemies, but friends,” the new president said to the crowd. “We must not be enemies.” He closed with an impassioned appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

May such angels find us now.


Words of Thanksgiving from Lincoln


On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to celebrate “a day of Thanksgiving” the following month. Here are excerpts from his proclamation:

“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies … It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving …”

A piece of Lincoln’s phrasing in the proclamation — “fit and proper” — foreshadowed words he would speak at Gettysburg 47 days later:

“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.”

Historian Shelby Foote said “you can’t understand the United States unless you understand the Civil War.” That goes for Thanksgiving, too, as Lincoln urged citizens “in every part” of our country to come together. His proclamation echoed the appeal to the South that he made in his first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

I love Lincoln the writer as much as Lincoln the president. Probably more.

This Thanksgiving, and every day, may our hearts be touched by, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature.”

When 268 Words Made Presidential Poetry

Created at wordle.net

Created at wordle.net


When my children were younger, I had a ritual on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday: I would play a recording of Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address for them before they left for school. As Lincoln’s words competed with Cheerios and orange juice for their attention, I hoped my kids would come to love those words as I do – for what they say and, especially, for how they say it.

There are only 268 words in the address – a mere ten sentences – but what profound poetry they make! As an English major in college, I was surprised to find the speech in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, right there with works by Emerson and Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe. Lincoln, the writer? But that was my tip-off. For the first time, I read the Gettysburg Address as a piece of literature, and have been re-reading it ever since.

The words are Lincoln’s own. No speechwriter submitted drafts to him or fine-tuned the phrasing on the train to Gettysburg the day before. The main speaker at the cemetery dedication was Edward Everett, former U.S. Secretary of State and Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln followed. There is no photo of him delivering his “remarks,” as they were called, because they were so brief. My favorite line in the speech is “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Thanks, in part, to Lincoln’s words, we do not forget.

Witnesses reported that Everett’s speech, much longer than Lincoln’s, was better received. But shortly afterward, the noted orator wrote to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In those two minutes, Lincoln proved what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet two and a half centuries before: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

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