Lincoln's Gettysburg Address called 'greatest elegy in English'

| Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

His words settled nothing.

All the bloody terror and uncertainty that burned through this divided land when the president started speaking still burned when he stopped two minutes later.

Yet the world had changed, even if it wasn't yet clear to the crowd that gathered 150 years ago on Tuesday to dedicate Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address planted a marker in the country's unfolding history. In an era of democratic retreat around the globe, Lincoln spoke about government of, by and for the people. In a cemetery, he spoke of a new birth of freedom.

“I cannot imagine any text in prose or verse that has its ability to transform grief into meaning,” said John Burt, author of the book, “Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism” and an American Literature professor at Brandeis University. “It is the greatest elegy in English.”

The speech recast the war as a struggle for something larger than the country over which it was fought. It ushered in the modern model of public speaking, and outshined the two-hour, 13,500-word keynote address by one of the most famous speakers of that time, historians said.

Lincoln pulled it off in about 270 words.

“... conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal ...”

The speech's opening clause — “Four score and seven years ago” — might be its most arcane language, said University of Pittsburgh linguist Scott Kiesling. The rest employs common language, rather than the lofty, flowery phrases of classical public speakers.

“It's fairly simple and direct, but not so simple that it cannot bear the weight of argument and rationality,” said Allen C. Guelzo, author of the book “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”

Lincoln's speech is shorter than the second paragraph of the day's keynote address from Harvard President Edward Everett. His words eclipsed Everett's almost immediately and, within a year, the address appeared in elocution textbooks.

Lincoln overturned “the predominance of classical speech,” Guelzo said.

“... whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure ...”

The words Lincoln left out — slavery, rebellion and union — tell almost as much as those he put in.

“He doesn't make a distinction between North and South in the speech,” Burt said. “He's treating a war over equality as something that was inevitably going to happen in any country that wished to base itself on equality as a value.”

Lincoln scholars say he saw the war as democracy's last stand.

“This threat from within is aimed right at the core of American identity, right at the Declaration of Independence,” Guelzo said.

Democratic revolutions that spread across Europe after 1776 had collapsed, and old aristocracies were reasserting control.

“Now the United States, to the delight of all the aristocrats, is proposing to blow its own brains out,” Guelzo said. “What's going on in this war is bigger even than slavery and the Constitution. ... The real thing that's at stake here is: Can democracy work? Can it survive?”

Lincoln finds his answer in the war dead of Gettysburg.

“... from these honored dead we take increased devotion ...”

The battle claimed 50,000 casualties. Sixty-three soldiers earned the Medal of Honor during three days of fighting.

“In a democracy, people aspire to be something more than just fat, dumb and happy. They really see something transcendent in democracy itself worth making that ‘last full measure of devotion,' ” Guelzo said. “He can see these very ordinary people doing the sort of thing that all the monarchs and princes had always said that ordinary people were incapable of doing. He sees them doing that and paying the price for it.”

“... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ...”

The speech endures because the form of government it helped define continues to struggle around the world, said Michael Burlingame, chairman of Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Today the threats come from Islamic theocracy and the totalitarianism of an ascendant China. The battlefields are Arab countries and emerging economies.

“We're locked in a struggle with those people and we're going to be in that struggle for a very long time,” Burlingame said. “It's important for people to be reminded of what we stand for.”

When Doug Pastore teaches the speech to freshmen at Avonworth High School, his lesson strays from Gettysburg to a few miles south of the school. Lance Corporal Patrick B. Kenny Memorial Field is named for an Avonworth graduate and Marine killed near Al Karmah, Iraq, in 2005.

Lincoln's core message — that duty compels the living — holds, Pastore said.

“These are all connected,” Pastore said. “Lincoln was telling us then: If we give up now, if we don't continue to devote ourselves to this cause, then this is all a moot point.”

“... that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or

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