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.