Seven score and ten years ago, Lincoln made the speech that is now engraved on public monuments. Maybe it’s just because deep down we like proving our presidents were wrong. People take much note, still, and long linger and remember. My thirteen most awesomest government students today could even fill in the blanks in unision today. Well, at least through the first two sentences.
What an opportune moment to pause, read the speech aloud, and reflect on our journey as a nation. Just for a moment.
I find myself also reflecting on some other facts about the speech, about that day.
Even now, I am amazed at how short and pithy a thing it is. Edward Everett was the keynote speaker that day, delivering in two hours his 13,607 word history lesson. Lincoln’s speech weighed in at 271 words which he delivered “in a clear, loud tone of voice, which could be distinctly heard at the extreme limits of the large assemblage. It was delivered (or rather read from a sheet of paper which the speaker held in his hand) in a very deliberate manner, with strong emphasis, and with a most businesslike air” (so reported the NY Times on November 21, 1863).
The pithiness and brevity of the speech reminds me of the fact that most of Jesus’ statements were bite-sized. Even the Gospel writers had to string them together into speeches. I don’t think Jesus gave speeches – though sometimes he clearly went off. Bite size statements. On a long-winded day, maybe even 271 words. Who knows. Perhaps a lesson or two for us here in our megabyte days, for teachers, pastors, parents, and, oh yes. Politicians.
I’m recalling today also that the speech was panned by many in the press, and Lincoln probably agreed with them. The Chicago Times called it an assemblage of “silly, flat and dish-watery utterances.” (Try using that one in your next sermon critique…who says the past was a guilded age of public civility!) It’s amazing how insignificant earnest, sincere, simple words can seem when first uttered. And how wondrous that the earnest, sincere and simple people who speak them (post them!) don’t care about the critiques. Would that we would all care less and say more (when speaking less).
Lastly, I was impressed today when reading that same NY Times write-up from 1863 with a simple portrait of our sixteenth president. How we do miss such – or are such in fact right here, right now, just unseen by us until death and decades have interposed themselves and given us a clearer light?
Soon after the arrival of the President at Gettysburgh last evening, he was serenaded by a Baltimore band, and after numerous calls for “the President,” “Old Abe,” “Uncle Abe,” “Father Abraham,” “the next President,” &c., &c., was induced to make his appearance at the door. He said he was fired and did not feel like speaking, and as a man who did not feel like talking was apt to say foolish things, he begged to be excused from making a speech. The audience cheered the sentiment, and the President, taking it for granted he was excused, retired to his room.
Ah, Father Abraham. You retired too soon.