It happened today - November 19, 2015
On Nov. 19 1863 Lincoln delivered the immortal Gettysburg address. It was and remains an incredible performance.
Spare, powerful, haunting, it forever captures the meaning of the war. After renowned orator Edward Everett spoke for two hours in characteristically florid style, only to have the president one-up him with ten sentences taking about two minutes.
It was not in fact written on an envelope or scrawled during a train ride. It was prepared with care and reworked to the point that we are not sure what the president actually said in November 1863. Contemporary accounts differ, as they do on its reception. And we do know that he was suffering an attack of smallpox at the time. But the classic version considered authoritative is the last one he wrote and the only one he signed. And as his final word on the subject, regardless of how it came about, it is both brilliant and sublime.
Such oratory, or writing, is rarely encountered. Indeed, it turned what would otherwise be a forgotten ceremony, one Lincoln expected would quickly be forgotten, into a pivotal moment in American history.
Among other things, it marks the definitive transition of Lincoln from a standard if talented Whig/Republican politician to reluctant wartime president to genuine statesman and enduring historical figure. We would of course take note of the president of the winning side during the American Civil War whoever he was, though perhaps without Lincoln’s steady hand and deepening wisdom the Union would not have prevailed. But Lincoln is more than that.
Perhaps he had greatness thrust upon him. But if so it fit.
The Gettysburg Address is not his only moment of transcendent rhetorical brilliance. His Second Inaugural sends shivers down my spine. And if he had not been assassinated on Good Friday of 1865 there might have been a third, even more important address, connected with a successful Reconstruction that conciliated North and South and white and black, generous with regard to the future while firmly closing the door on the past, instead of the botched, bitter mess foisted on the nation by unreconstructed Democratic president Andrew Johnson and his Radical Republican enemies.
We cannot know for sure. History is not a science and cannot be revisited in laboratory experiments. But the trajectory from his early partisan days through Lincoln-Douglas debates to the Gettysburg Address and beyond, and his increasingly impressive performance as a statesman and commander-in-chief, strongly suggest he had much more to give.
In any case, the Gettysburg Address is worth rereading and pondering year after year, unlike Everett’s competent if purple sludge and most of everything else politicians say on occasions great and small.