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The power of brevity: Remembering the Gettysburg Address

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Gerald Shuster is a University of Pittsburgh political communication professor. He spoke to the Trib regarding the rhetorical strengths of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which marks its 150th anniversary on Tuesday.

Q: Is the key to this speech's power the fact that it packs so much punch using so few words?

A: Yeah, it's the brevity and the effectiveness of the 270 words. That it was kind of impromptu, yet still so rhetorically effective and inspirational, makes it all the more amazing.

You know, hardly anyone ever talks about the speaker who preceded Lincoln (former U.S. Sen. Edward Everett), because whatever he delivered in the (two-hour speech) wasn't anything of significance.

But this rhetoric of Lincoln's was direct. He called upon God, he called upon the memory of people and (their) patriotism and the service (they) provided.

The speech had the impact that it did because of the choice of words, Lincoln's slow and deliberate style of delivery and his ability to target the tone and mood of the audience for that occasion.

Q: Could you elaborate on Lincoln's choice of words? What made them special?

A: He was able to look at the audience and not (be) macabre even though they say the stench of death was still very much apparent when he gave that speech.

His rhetoric parallels both patriotic appeal and religious appeal. (He noted) the (burial) ground is dedicated not so much because people died there, but because they fought for a cause. He didn't say “died”; he said people “gave their last full measure of devotion.”

He mentions a nation “under God,” much like current presidents do when they conclude their really important speeches with “God Bless the United States of America.”

Q: Was the “under God” reference common (for presidents) at the time?

A: No. Remember, they were working hard to remove religion from government focus. They were sticking literally to the Constitution.

Q: Is it safe to call the Gettysburg Address the most well-known and influential speech in American history?

A: I think there would be little doubt about that. There have been many good public addresses by presidents and others. But perhaps the only other ones that come close to (the Gettysburg Address) are (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt's Day of Infamy speech and (John Kennedy's) inaugural address.

But if there's any speech that the average person knows, if you gave them a couple of lines from it, it's the Gettysburg Address. I doubt there's any other speech out there that if you gave people a few lines from it, they could easily identify it.

Q: One of the more famous lines in the address is, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.“ That obviously turned out not to be the case. Do you think Lincoln was clueless that he had crafted such an enduring speech?

A: I think he probably meant that this was so important, but however important it is to us today, people are not likely to remember it tomorrow. That's kind of standard in human nature — no matter how important something is, other things will become more important down the road.

(That line) was kind of a prophecy that didn't come true, thank goodness.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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