The Language Of Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln, highlighted in sepia, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg.

One hundred and fifty years have passed since Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War. May 4, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, an event which will be commemorated by thousands of Civil War re-enactors, visitors and dignitaries participating in the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Re-enactment.

The Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, caused 51,000 casualties. Hence Lincoln’s address, given on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, was particularly momentous. The New York Times reported, “People from all parts of the country seem to have taken this opportunity to pay a visit to the battle-fields which are hereafter to make the name of Gettysburgh [sic] immortal. … During the last three days, the scenes of the late battles have been visited by thousands of persons from every loyal State in the Union, and there is probably not a foot of the grounds that has not been trodden over and over again by reverential feet.”

In spite of the momentous occasion, however, Lincoln’s speech was a mere 271 words (some sources say 272 words, a discrepancy attributable to the fact that battle-field is sometimes counted as one word and sometimes as two).  Roughly five minutes long, Lincoln’s speech contrasted starkly with that of the keynote speaker, Edward Everett. Former Secretary of State and Massachusetts governor, the “famed orator” Everett spoke for a stunning two hours, plying the crowd with over 13,500 words. As one website which contains the full text of Everett’s speech warns, “Please note that this speech is presented in its entirety and will exceed 30 pages if printed out.”

In many respects, Lincoln’s speech is complex: literary allusions to the Bible and the Declaration of Independence; triads of past, present, and future as well as birth, death, and rebirth; parallel structures and mesodiplosis (a rhetorical term for repeating the same word or words in the middle of successive sentences). Yet Lincoln’s speech is also strikingly simple. For example, take this sentence: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Only one three-syllable word out of twenty-one. In the words of acclaimed British novelist George Eliot, “The finest language is mostly made up of simple, unimposing words.”

Everett acknowledged as much. In a letter to the president, Everett wrote: “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. 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.”

“Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” said Einstein. “It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” So here’s to Lincoln’s rhetorical genius and courage, the Gettysburg Address, printed in its entirety:

 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and 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.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—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.

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